Kentucky Derby: all you need to know as Medina Spirit leaves Bob Baffert in seventh heaven

By Nicholas Godfrey

So you know Bob Baffert landed his seventh Kentucky Derby victory as Medina Spirit got home in a driving finish with the crowds back at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Here’s some other stuff you might be interested in – plus videos and tweets.

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What’s going on?

‘I’m the luckiest guy in the world’ – Bob Baffert

Bob Baffert seemed more surprised than anybody as 12-1 Medina Spirit, the little horse with the big heart, courageously held off all-comers with a rugged all-the-way victory in the 147th Kentucky Derby.

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“I knew he was training well, but I was really, really surprised,” said Baffert after recording his seventh victory in America’s greatest race.

“I kept waiting for these horses to come to him,” added Baffert, 68. “I cannot believe he won this race. That little horse, it was all guts. His heart is bigger than his body. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”

He’s a Kentucky Derby record breaker

Medina Spirit’s victory means Baffert is now out on his own as the most successful Kentucky Derby trainer of all-time, moving one ahead of six-time winner Ben Jones.

His previous six winners were Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015), Justify (2018) and Authentic (2020).

Like Baffert, Jones’s six Derby victors also included a pair of Triple Crown winners in Whirlaway and Citation. Baffert has won 17 Triple Crown races altogether (seven Preakness, three Belmont).

Decisive move at the gate

The race was arguably won at the start, where 12-1 shot Medina Spirit was put straight on the lead by the canny John Velazquez, who teamed up with Baffert to win the 2020 edition with Authentic in September.

Clearly he is a hard horse to pass, as he demonstrated by thwarting the sustained challenge of Juddmonte longshot Mandaloun by a half-length; both principals raced prominently.

In a tight finish, Hot Rod Charlie and the favourite Essential Quality were just another half-length and a head away. Final time was 2m01.02s.

Louisville native Brad Cox, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning trainer, saddled both second and fourth on his Derby debut.

Horse Racing Medina Spirit Kentucky Derby
Medina Spirit (right, John Velazquez) holds on in the Kentucky Derby. Photo: Churchill Downs/Coady

Oaks/Derby double for Johnny V

After Malathaat’s victory on Friday’s card, John Velazquez became the first jockey to complete the Kentucky Oaks/Derby double since Calvin Borel in 2009 on Rachel Alexandra and Mine That Bird.

“There’s no words to describe it,” said 49-year-old rider. “What an incredible feeling, man, it doesn’t get old.”

Velazquez was riding his fourth Kentucky Derby winner after Animal Kingdom (2011), Always Dreaming (2017) and Authentic (2020). The record is five, achieved by both Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack.

Bargain buy

Having been sold for just $1,000 as a yearling by breeder Gail Rice, Medina Spirit will go down as one of the biggest bargain buys in the modern era of horse racing. “That little guy has got such a big heart,” said Bob Baffert. “He doesn’t know how much he cost.”

The Florida-bred son of obscure, unproven stallion Protonico was sold again for $35,000 in July of his two-year-old season to current owner Amr Zedan, whose horses run under the Zedan Racing Stables banner.

Not even the best in his own barn …

For much of the Kentucky Derby preamble, Medina Spirit was nowhere near the top of Baffert’s pecking order before setbacks ruled higher-profile stable companions such as Life Is Good and Concert Tour out of the reckoning. 

Indeed, Medina Spirit was eight lengths behind undefeated Life Is Good when they met in G2 company at Santa Anita in March.

Essential Quality bumped and wide

Beaten favourite Essential Quality suffered a far-from-perfect trip, getting a bump with market rival Rock Your World at the gate and then racing four wide. The Godolphin colt finished fourth, just over a length behind the winner.

“He bumped pretty good out of the gate,” reported jockey Luis Saez. “We ended up getting pretty wide the entire trip which didn’t help either.”

Trainer Brad Cox added: “He didn’t get the greatest trip as he was wide around both turns. That can happen when you start from the 14 hole.”

Rock Your World: ‘No chance’

Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World had little chance after getting squeezed back by Essential Quality, his next-door neighbour in the starting gate. “We got squeezed at the start and we were done,” said trainer John Sadler. “No chance.”

Official crowd of 51,838

With the Kentucky Derby one of the first major US sporting events to welcome paying customers since Covid struck, an official crowd figure of 51,838 was released by Churchill Downs officials.

Baffert breaks G1 record with Gamine

Churchill Downs: Derby City Distaff G1 $500,000, 7f, dirt, 4yo+ f/m
Gamine (Bob Baffert/John Velazquez)

Medina Spirit’s victory capped a record-breaking day for Bob Baffert. According to Equibase statistics, the west-coast training legend had already established a new record for G1 victories in North America when 1-5 favourite Gamine claimed the Derby City Distaff on the undercard.

After recovering from a stumble at the break, last year’s champion female sprinter led throughout before repelling a challenge from Sconsin in the stretch to win by a length and a half.

The brilliant four-year-old registered Baffert’s 220th success at G1 level, surpassing D Wayne Lukas’s record of 219. “I didn’t know I was that close to the record until a month ago,” said the trainer. “To do it here on this big day is very special.”

Shall we talk about it?

Bob Baffert (Medina Spirit’s trainer): “This little horse coming in here, he’s always shown he’s an overachiever. His heart is bigger than his body. When he turned for home, something just told me. He reminded me of Silver Charm. He doesn’t know how much he cost. He wouldn’t let anyone pass him. Mr Zedan wanted to come to the Derby with a $35,000 horse. I thought we’d see what happens. This horse, the way he ran, I didn’t know he had it in him. Johnny Velazquez is unbelievable. He’s so cool. He told me last night not to underestimate this horse. He’s better than you think.”

John Velazquez (Medina Spirit’s jockey): “Every time I asked him to give more he kept fighting on. You couldn’t ask for more of a horse. When you ride a horse like this who is competitive you can’t ask for anything else. I think I got more tired than he did. He was fighting. He was fighting for every bit of everything I asked him to do. He was fighting.”

Amr Zedan (Medina Spirit’s owner): “I was just hoping for a clean break. We got the eight hole. I knew he had a heart that’s bigger than his body. And all we needed is for him to be up front and just keep fighting because no one was going to pass Medina if Medina really got the lead.
“On the way into the stretch, I just couldn’t see anything. It just went grey, and all of a sudden everybody is jumping on top of me. I don’t know. It was emotional. It was surreal. It was just amazing.”

Florent Geroux (Mandaloun’s jockey): “He absolutely ran his heart out. Words can’t describe how proud I am of him. What a race and what a horse. Well done to trainer Brad Cox. He got him ready to run off the Louisiana Derby effort. He showed us he is the horse we always thought. We just got beat.”

Doug O’Neill (Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer): “I’m proud; very proud. He ran huge. It looked to me like he had a good trip. We’re honoured and blessed to have a horse like this. I’m so proud of him – and I know for sure that he’ll be back.”

Brad Cox (Essential Quality’s trainer): “He didn’t get the greatest trip as he was wide around both turns. That can happen when you start from the 14 hole, especially when you don’t get off to a good start. He was leaning out on the far turn and Luis said he was shying away from the other horses. We will just have to regroup. Proud of both horses. They trained well and just wish the order of finish was just a little different.”

Joel Rosario (Rock Your World’s jockey): “It was pretty much over after the break. We got out of position from there and it was a tough trip to overcome in a race like the Derby.”

Bob Baffert (on Gamine): “She got the job done. I told Johnny that this was the first time she’s run before a crowd. She was looking around. So many things can go wrong but once I saw her down the backside, I knew we were in the clear.”

John Velazquez (on Gamine): “She didn’t get the break I hoped for but she bounced back really quickly and ran really easy in the early going. She showed what a champion she was and I was very proud of my filly.”

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