AN UNYIELDING SPIRIT WINS KENTUCKY DERBY
FLAGSTAFF PROVIDES SOLACE FOR SADLER
CHARMAINE’S MIA DRILLS FOR GRADE I GAMELY
‘WALK-ON’ CAPTURES THE ROSES FOR BAFFERT
And so it came to pass that on this day, Bob Baffert looked down his bench and saw but a single player remaining.
Gone were “A list” starters Life Is Good, Concert Tour and team mates Freedom Fighter, Spielberg and Hozier.
The only one left was Medina Spirit, a walk-on that cost a paltry $35,000, tip money in today’s mega-money sales market dominated by billionaire sheiks and syndicates.
His bloodlines might have been miniscule, but not his heart.
“He doesn’t know how much he cost,” Baffert said after Medina Spirit won the 147th Kentucky Derby Saturday by a half-length at odds of 12-1, breaking on top in a field of 19 and leading throughout a mile and a quarter to give the two-time Triple Crown winner a record seventh victory in the world’s most famous race.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Baffert proclaimed after Medina Spirit joined Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015), Justify (2018) and Authentic (2020) in his Kentucky Derby shrine.
“He was bright today and looked good,” Baffert said by phone from Kentucky early Sunday morning. “It was pretty unbelievable. I went in there thinking maybe I’d get a piece of it, but I wasn’t sure.
“I was counting on his heart. He shipped well, trained well here. He had to run his A game and he brought it. He sort of ran the same race he ran in the Robert Lewis (at Santa Anita on Jan. 30, leading all the way and winning by a neck over Roman Centurian, with Hot Rod Charlie a nose back in third).
“He fought everybody off in the Lewis and did the same thing yesterday. It was unbelievable, a great feeling, because I’m used to going in there with the heavyweights, the favorites and all that.”
Medina Spirit was ridden by John Velazquez, a Hall of Fame member who worked hard for his fourth Kentucky Derby victory.
“I was more tired than the horse was after the race,” Velazquez quipped.
It was a difficult but refreshing win for Team Baffert as well.
“We got to really enjoy the whole week,” Baffert said. “We were under the radar, had a good time, and then to win the Derby and win with Gamine (in the Grade I, $500,000 Derby City Distaff) and Du Jour (in the Grade II, $500,000 American Turf) for my wife, Jill, and Debbie Lanni (the owners), it was just a great day.”
Emotional excitement aside, it might have been old hat for Baffert, but not for 59-year-old Gary Young, a clocker since he was 18 and a bloodstock agent for more than three decades. His best buy before Medina Spirit was 1993 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Brocco, who raced for Albert and Dana Broccoli, producers of the iconic James Bond movies.
Sensing he could be a modern-day Seabiscuit, it was Young who told owner Amr Zedan to buy Medina Spirit for $35,000 as a two-year-old in training at last year’s Ocala Breeders’ Sale.
Zedan was eloquent in his praise of Baffert in his post-race interview on NBC-TV.
“To Bob, training is not a job,” Zedan said. “It’s an art, and he’s like Picasso or Michelangelo,” a high compliment, indeed.
With the $1,860,000 he earned winning the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit’s bankroll now stands at $2,175,200, more than 62 times his purchase price.
He became one of 20 horses that have competed in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, the West Coast’s major steppingstone to the Kentucky Derby, and go on to win it.
“I had a good feeling about his chances, I really did,” Young said by phone from Kentucky early Sunday morning. “We might have been 12-1, but in my mind, we had a lot better chance than your typical 12-1 shot.
“There wasn’t much speed inside of him (he broke from post position eight) . . . Plan A was to go to the lead, and the horse I feared most in the race, (Rock Your World, who won the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby by 4 ¼ lengths over Medina Spirit on April 3) got eliminated at the start (when sandwiched by Highly Motivated and favored Essential Quality).
“When Rock Your World was back in 12th after a mile, I knew he was probably getting dirt in his face and wasn’t going to be the factor I thought he would (eventually finishing 17th, beaten some 24 lengths). Mandaloun (who finished second) was behind Medina Spirit and pulling more than you’d probably like to see, but you could tell he definitely had run.
“Behind him I saw Flavien (Prat on Hot Rod Charlie, who would finish third, a half-length behind Mandaloun). I was on record as saying Southern California horses would represent themselves well in the Derby, and they did.
“One of them (Rock Your World) got eliminated, the other two ran one-three. In the post-race press conference Bob mentioned that Medina looked terrific in the paddock, and in any race, but especially the Derby with all the fanfare and hubbub going on, there are horses that kind of go to pieces because they’re not used to the unfamiliar activity.
“But there are other horses who rise to the occasion and maintain their calm with a demeanor that says, ‘OK, I’m ready for this,’ and that’s kind of how Medina was acting. This race was like the Robert Lewis, only on a bigger stage.
“In the Lewis it looked like Roman Centurian and Hot Rod Charlie were going right by Medina, but he said, ‘No, you’re not.’ When they lined up four across the track at the eighth pole (in the Derby), that’s the essence of horse racing right there.
“Medina has a lot of ability, but what takes him to the next level is his heart. He never let a horse get in front of him yesterday, not even on the gallop-out.
“If every horse I ever picked out tried as hard as he did, it would be a lot easier game. I saw him this morning, he was bright-eyed with his ears up, like he knew he did something good, so right now we’ll probably aim for the Preakness (on May 15) and see what happens there.”
FINISH LINES: While trainer John Sadler lost all chance of winning the Kentucky Derby with Rock Your World at the start of the race, he salvaged a memorable victory in the Churchill Downs Stakes thanks to a courageous effort by seven-year-old gelding Flagstaff, who overcame apparent defeat in deep stretch only to come again in the final strides and win the Grade I sprint worth $500,000 by a head under jockey Luis Saez . . . Streaking graded turf stakes winner Charmaine’s Mia worked four furlongs on the training track Sunday in 50.80 for the Grade I Gamely Stakes on May 31. It was one of 166 recorded workouts this morning. “She just had a basic maintenance work,” said Santa Anita’s leading trainer Phil D’Amato. “They’ll get more serious as the race gets closer.” . . . Santa Anita is dark for live racing Monday through Thursday. Live racing resumes at 1 p.m. Friday, May 7…Santa Anita Morning Line Maker Jon White reports Medina Spirit earned a 102 Beyer Speed figure in winning the Derby.
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