Essential Quality may have been the best horse in the Kentucky Derby – but circumstances conspired against the Godolphin runner as Bob Baffert claimed the prize with Medina Spirit. NICHOLAS GODFREY reflects on the 147th running
There was so much to enjoy about a wonderful Kentucky Derby weekend – not least a courageous victory for Malathaat in the silks of the late Sheikh Hamdan’s Shadwell operation in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks.
What a race that was – and how great it was to see the stands full of people as Churchill Downs welcomed back the crowds. Well, not exactly full, but about 40% capacity, which still meant more than 93,000 through the turnstiles across the two days for the first major US sporting event to be scheduled since COVID struck.
For Godolphin, though, the main event was a less positive experience as Essential Quality lost his unbeaten record to become the 12th horse not to win the Kentucky Derby wearing the iconic royal blue silks.
To be fair, the favourite was hardly disgraced in being beaten just over a length into fourth; in fact, he equalled Godolphin’s best-ever placing, previously achieved by Frosted in 2015 when he stayed on behind the great American Pharoah.
Yet while this was nothing like the nadir of Thunder Snow’s baffling bucking-bronco debacle, the blunt statistic remains: after more than two decades of trying, Godolphin’s Kentucky Derby record is 0-for-12. Worse, they have yet to have a horse finish in the first three.
Contrast this, say, with Bob Baffert, who became the most successful Kentucky Derby trainer of all time with his seventh victory as Medina Spirit repelled all-comers in a rugged all-the-way effort.
Remember, this little colt was sold for just $1,000 as a yearling before being sold again for just $35,000 last year as a two-year-old; he had been well beaten on his previous two starts, including an eight-length drubbing by stablemate Life Is Good in Grade 2 company in March.
The best three-year-old in the country? He was considered nowhere the best three-year-old in his own barn. Yet as Life Is Good and high-profile stablemate Concert Tour fell by the wayside, Medina Spirit was the last man standing for the west-coast legend on the first Saturday in May.
Even Baffert himself seemed flabbergasted to be welcoming back his seventh Derby winner.
“I knew he was training well, but I was really, really surprised,” said Uncle Bob, who has now won 17 Triple Crown races. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
Love him or loathe him, Baffert knows how to train Kentucky Derby winners. But if the scoreboard of history says Baffert 7 Godolphin 0, the nagging feeling remains that the Dubai team will always reflect on this particular Kentucky Derby as a missed opportunity.
With the best will in the world, with the probable exception of the sidelined Life Is Good, this does not look a stellar crop of US dirt three-year-olds. There is little to choose between them on speed figures and, in the end, there was little to choose between the first four at the wire at Churchill Downs. The margins were a half-length, half-length and a head.
Essential Quality went into the race as number one form choice and surely, with better racing luck, he might well have won. In no way was he outclassed by the winner – but he was drawn high enough in gate 14, and then he got a couple of bumps as the stalls opened.
This affected his position, albeit to a rather lesser degree than Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World, whose chance was gone after he cannoned into Essential Quality and got squeezed back. For a horse who wanted the lead, this was game over.
The day after the race, trainer Brad Cox seemed convinced.
“Not anything away from the top three but I think he was the best horse,” said Cox, who also trained second-placed Mandaloun. “People can say what they want. But he was beaten a length and ran 68 feet farther than the winner, and had a little bit of trouble at the start.
“I thought Essential was kind of compromised at the start and then was kind of in chase mode pretty much the whole way. He just never could get comfortable, take his deep breath to where he could gather himself up and come with a strong finish. But he did stay on extremely well.”
Medina Spirit, on the other hand, enjoyed a charmed passage – and so, for that matter, did the runner-up Mandaloun in a race where nothing could come from off the pace. The peerless John Velazquez, so brilliant on Malathaat 24 hours earlier, produced a carbon copy of last year’s front-running victory on Baffert-trained Authentic.
Breaking sharply, Medina Spirit found himself virtually unchallenged for the lead as potential pace rival Midnight Bourbon fluffed his lines and Rock Your World got smashed.
As Essential Quality was forced wide, Johnny V never left the rail and when he finally called upon Medina Spirit for his effort in the stretch, he found a partner as game as they come in a driving finish.
“I cannot believe he won this race,” said Baffert. “That little horse, it was all guts. His heart is bigger than his body.”
Medina Spirit certainly had the heart, and he also had the luck of the draw. Plus, it might be suggested, he also had the trainer and jockey to make it count.
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