The first Saturday of each May is always an exhilarating day for the near sixteen million viewers watching the annual horse race considered “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” This past Saturday marked the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. This event is the first leg of the Triple Crown series, which encompasses the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes, three of the most significant horseracing events in the world for three-year-old thoroughbreds.
Despite the loosening COVID-19 restrictions across the United States, this year’s Derby attendants were capped at a 50% stadium capacity, a mere 50,000 spectators, which is around one-third of the estimated usual crowd. This year’s Run for the Roses has been reported as the largest sporting event in the United States since March of 2020, before the start of the pandemic. This year, the most exciting two minutes in sports turned into the most exciting two minutes, one second, and two-hundredths of a second as, to the great surprise of many, legacy trainer Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit took the record-breaking win.
Starting from the eighth post with odds at 12-1, Medina Spirit was an unlikely victor. Despite his accomplished trainer’s incredibly distinguished record, Medina Spirit was not the favorite of the race; trainer Brad H. Cox’s Essential Quality, the race favorite, with 5-2 odds, finished in fourth. Even before the Derby, Bob Baffert had said that he would place Medina Spirit in the “top five or ten” horses of the race. Still, he thought that there were contenders more likely to come out on top. The Derby was the colt’s first official race win since January of this year, despite his total of three wins and three places in six career starts. The Derby, as well, marked Medina Spirit’s first start with odds in the double digits.
Medina Spirit’s upset of the race favorites came as a surprise to many, especially as the colt appears to be a far cry from the traditional Baffert thoroughbred. At the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. in 2019, Medina Spirit sold for only $1,000 as a yearling. Then, a two-year-old Medina Spirit was purchased last July for a mere $35,000 (to put this into perspective, the average cost for a two-year-old racehorse-in-training is around $95,000) by Amr F. Zehan, billionaire philanthropist, businessman, and founder of Zehan Racing Stables in Lexington, Kentucky. Medina Spirit also does not flaunt the fancy pedigree that most of Baffert’s big winners do. Medina Spirit is (sired) by Protonico, who won four graded stakes for total career earnings of $997,587 and is out of (dam) Mongolian Changa, who was purchased at an auction as a yearling for around $9,000. Despite his successful career, Protonico has not been a widely sought-out or popular sire. However, that is now likely to change.
Despite Medina Spirit’s seemingly many shortcomings, his team is walking away with the coveted gold trophy and $1.86 million purse. He paid $26.20 to win, $12.00 to place, and $7.60 to show. Baffert spoke admirable of the animal, saying that, “he’s going to fight. He’s an overachiever. His heart is bigger than his body. He just tries so hard, and I love that in a horse”. After the race, he even went so far as to compare Medina Spirit’s temperament and performance to Silver Charm, another prized Baffert thoroughbred who won the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Baffert said that he was in disbelief watching the race as he realized that the colt had a real shot at winning and was refusing to surrender his early lead.
Baffert’s record-breaking victory marked the first time in history that a trainer has won a total of seven Derbys. It was also Baffert’s second Derby win in a row, following Authentic in 2020. His previous six Derby victory score was tied with late trainer Benjamin Jones (1882 – 1961). Baffert also has two career wins of the Triple Crown by horses Justify and American Pharaoh. Saturday’s events mark the fourth Derby victory for Hall of Famer jockey John Velazquez. Velazquez was also incredibly impressed and surprised by Medina Spirit’s performance, saying that “we got to the 16th pole and he put his ears down and kept fighting. I was so proud of him”. Velazquez also became the first jockey to win consecutive Derbies since Victor Espinoza in 2014 and 2015. His earning now total over $430 million.
This past Sunday, Bob Baffert announced in a press conference that Medina Spirit had failed his post-race drug test. Considering Baffert’s scandal-fraught past, most were unfazed by this revelation; this is the 31st positive test of his career and the 5th just within the past year. Twenty-one picograms of betamethasone, an anti-inflammatory drug, was found in Medina Spirit’s post-race sample. Despite Baffert’s claims that an anti-fungal treatment called Otomax, which was being used to treat dermatitis on Medina Spirit’s hind end, may have been the cause of the failed test, he has been banned indefinitely from making further entries at Churchill Downs. Baffert has requested a follow-up drug test that will determine whether or not Medina Spirit will officially be able to race at Pimlico this weekend.
The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore occurs only two weeks after the Derby, on May 15th, leaving not much room for recovery time and preparation between the two races. Baffert has sent the Derby winner to the Preakness Stakes seven times historically, and six of those contenders have won. If one of his horses were to win this year, he would be breaking another record set by trainer R. Wyndham Walden of the trainer with the most horses to win Preakness. Baffert officially announced that Medina Spirit would be racing in the Preakness Stakes, after a statement was released by the Maryland Jockey Club outlining a specific agreement and a “commitment from Bob Baffert to full transparency of medical and testing results that will allow for all results to be released to the public.” Medina Spirit has drawn post no. 3 as the morning line favorite at 9-5 odds; Derby favorite Essential Quality will not be racing.