A record-breaking seventh win in the 2021 Kentucky Derby seemed very unlikely for Bob Baffert but his 12/1 shot Medina Spirit, a bargain-basement $1000 yearling, surprised him and many others at Churchill Downs on May 1.
Medina Spirit’s jockey John Velazquez had much more faith in the colt, owned by Zedan Stables, and rode him as if he was the best horse in the race, leading from flag fall and trusting him to repel challengers.
Medina Spirit did exactly that, keeping his head in front of his closest pursuers from the start and he courageously regained the lead when Brad Cox’s longshot Mandaloun briefly headed him in the stretch. He crossed the wire half a length ahead of him. Doug O’Neill’s more popular Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie took third under Flavien Prat, a length behind him. He was closely followed by Cox’s 3/1 Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality ridden by Luis Saez. Greg Foley’s O Besos outran his 42/1 starting price to take fifth, almost six lengths behind the winner.
Baffert commented after the race that Medina Spirit’s heart was bigger than his body. He was hoping for a placing rather than expecting a record-breaking win. Velazquez had already realized that Medina Spirit’s determination was his key attribute. He had only been beaten into second place by front runners whom he had not had the chance to eyeball in his latest two starts. He decided to let him take the leading role for once and attempt to defend his position. The strategy gave him his fourth Kentucky Derby score.
The break was significant too. Medina Spirit jumped well from stall eight, gaining the lead before the first turn and edged across to the rail. Two of his more popular rivals, Rock Your World and Essential Quality, were a step behind him and immediately compromised their chances by bumping into each other after exiting the gates. The crucial loss of momentum enabled other horses to get into good racing positions and left them both in ‘catch up’ mode, expending extra energy and racing wide. Essential Quality had two horses on his inside rounding the first turn in sixth and was forced to waste ground throughout. His final effort was not helped by being carried into the middle of the track in the final turn.
Medina Spirit did not have an easy time on the lead. There was constant pressure on the pace from Soup And Sandwich and testing early fractions were set but he was able to fight back when headed to post a winning time of 2 minutes 1.02. Mandaloun had benefited from a perfect trip charted by Florent Geroux. He raced behind Medina Spirit on the rail and only left it to challenge for the lead close to home.
Medina Spirit’s victory gave Velazquez a Kentucky Derby and Oaks double. He was expected to win on Malathaat, the Todd Pletcher-trained Oaks favorite, and managed to do so after a troubled trip similar to the one experienced by Essential Quality. She had enough energy after the race to jump back and unseat him when the winner’s garland approached. Medina Spirit’s handler thoughtfully covered the colt’s eyes when he was approached with the roses and did the same thing when the garland was removed. Velazquez did not deserve another unscheduled dismount after his victory.
Rags to Riches for Sales’ Flop Medina Spirit
Medina Spirit was bought as a yearling by the pinhooker Christy Whitman for the minimum bid of $1,000 at Keeneland. He was not the most physically impressive specimen and no one was drawn to his sire, Protonico. Based in Kentucky at Castleton Lyons Farm, his stud fee was billed as $5,000 and his tiny first crop had done nothing to make anyone notice him. Expect that fee to rise dramatically.
Protonico is a son of the ‘iron horse’ Giant’s Causeway out of a Brilliant Speed mare. The sire is owned and was bred by Oussama Aboughazale. When trained by Todd Pletcher he finished second to Baffert’s Hoppertunity in the grade 1 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs as a three-year-old in 2014. Protonico won the grade 2 Alysheba Stakes at the same track as a four-year-old and scored in a small race at Belmont Park in 2016 and placed third in the grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes when he was six. It is a respectable resume but nothing to get excited about. Whitman admitted that she did not know much about the sire but, working on a limited budget that excluded top pedigrees, liked the way Medina Spirit moved and held himself.
Aboughazale is a friend of Zedan and called him when he saw that Medina Spirit had been sent to the July Ocala Breeze-Ups and asked him to look at him. Zedan was not intending to buy any more horses at the time but agreed to consider him. The purchase was made for just $35,000 through the bloodstock agent Gary Young. Zedan had paid out $1,350,000 to secure Princess Noor, he is a successful businessman with a big budget.
Baffert was not put off by Medina Spirit’s purchase price and was impressed by his workouts, he compared well with colts with much better pedigrees that had cost substantially more. Medina Spirit won his only start as a juvenile and took second in both the Sham Stakes and the grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita behind his ultra-talented barnmate, Life Is Good. He occupied the same position behind the front-running dirt debutant Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby under Velazquez.
In 2020 Baffert won the Kentucky Derby with Authentic, who was purchased for a more feasible $350,000 as a yearling. His 2018 winner Justify achieved $500,000 at the same age. His 1998 winner Real Quiet came with a price tag of only $17,000 but that was a long time ago.
The success of Medina Spirit gives hope to owners without fortunes to spend. Baffert is considering the Preakness as his next target.