Not even Bob Baffert could believe this one.
Seconds after watching Medina Spirit and John Velazquez waltz along on the lead with nary any serious pressure on the way to a gritty victory over Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality in Saturday’s 147th Kentucky Derby, Baffert made a beeline from his favorite watch spot in the paddock to the winner’s circle.
He’d made the walk – or others from up in the owner's box area back in the late 1990s – six times before and was on his way to celebrate his seventh Derby victory. A record seventh Derby at that, Medina Spirit providing the Hall of Fame trainer with the one needed to pass Ben Jones’ record that stood for nearly seven decades. And he still found it difficult to process.
“Unbelievable,” Baffert said, flanked by his wife Jill while a small group of media and camera crews hung close. “Unbelievable. Where’s Jill? Where’s Bode? Can you believe it? Do you believe it? I can’t believe it.”
Medina Spirit, once a $1,000 yearling who only cost Amr Zedan $35,000 as a 2-year-old, won the $3 million Derby by a half-length to give Baffert and Velazquez back-to-back wins in America’s most coveted race. They teamed to win last year with Authentic, using a similar front-running strategy to hold off favored Tiz The Law in the pandemic delayed Derby run the first Saturday in September.
Derby 147 returned to its traditional first Saturday in May date on the calendar this year, along with a significant number of fans in the stands who witnessed noteworthy accomplishments for the winner and his human connections.
Velazquez continued to enhance his status as one of the best jockeys of all-time with his fourth Derby win – all since 2011 – and becoming the eighth rider to win the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby in the same year.
“I’m obviously very glad and thankful for the opportunities Bob has given me,” Velazquez said. “These opportunities don’t come very often for a man like me, the age that I’m on right now. Bob has given me the opportunity, I’m 49 years old and … I’m very grateful and very thankful.”
Baffert added Medina Spirit’s name to his other Derby winners – Silver Charm, Real Quiet, War Emblem, American Pharoah, Justify and Authentic.
“This is one of the biggest Derby wins,” Baffert said. “This year I really enjoyed myself. I came in here under the radar and I thought, ‘well, maybe he’ll get a piece of it or something.’ But Johnny, he kept telling me if he improved off his last race he’ll run well. Ron Anderson, his agent, really one of the sharpest, he told me if he just improves 2 points off the sheets you can win this one.”
Zedan, a Saudi businessman who entered racing just five years ago, won the Derby with his first starter.
Medina Spirit became the seventh Florida-bred to win the roses and the first since Baffert’s first victory with Silver Charm in 1997. He also did it in the eighth fastest winning time – 2:01.02. Gail Rice, who bred Medina Spirit out of her Brilliant Speed mare Monogolian Changa, also bred her first Derby winner.
“It’s a thrilling win,” Baffert said. “This horse, what he did today, he’s got so much of Silver Charm in him. You put him on the lead and he’s going along easy and when those horses came to him I kept waiting all those horses to pass him. When they turned for home, I go, ‘well, I think he’s out of horse.’ Then all of a sudden I go, ‘wait a minute, he’s still …’ but I didn’t start rooting yet. When we got to about the eighth pole we thought, he’s got a shot.”
Velazquez, definitive in getting Malathaat engaged and into the Oaks after a bump at the break, showed even more decisiveness in the Derby. He studied the race and figured Medina Spirit, drawn in Post 8 with other potential frontrunners Rock Your World and Soup And Sandwich to his outside in 15 and 18, respectively, could be on the lead.
Medina Spirit broke well when the field of 19 left the gate a minute before 7 p.m. on a beautiful spring day in Louisville and Velazquez went to work. Velazquez hustled Medina Spirit to the front past the stands and just ahead of Helium and Soup And Sandwich past the finish post the first time.
Medina Spirit continued to lead around the first turn and into the backstretch, clicking off splits of :23.09, :46.70 and 1:11.21 without much serious pressure despite Soup And Sandwich, Mandaloun, Helium and Hot Rod Charlie racing in close attendance. Mandaloun and Florent Geroux came to Medina Spirit at the midpoint of the far turn while Essential Quality started to rev up just to the outside of Hot Rod Charlie.
Brad Cox, attempting to become the first Louisville native to train a Derby winner, watched Mandaloun and Essential Quality make their runs and let the thought sneak in that he could finish 1-2.
Medina Spirit and Velazquez denied that in the stretch, fending off the challenge and even edging away again in the shadow of the finish. Mandaloun finished a half-length in front of Hot Rod Charlie, who was a head in front of 5-2 favorite Essential Quality with 41-1 longshot O Besos fifth.
“He ran huge, saving ground down along the inside, battled and battled hard. I thought he had a shot to win it there and maybe just came up a little short,” Cox said of Mandaloun’s run. “Not the greatest trip (for Essential Quality), wide around both turns, 14-hole, that happens sometimes especially if you don’t get away. Proud of both efforts, I thought they both ran hard, they were training the part, just wish the order of finish was a little different.
“We’ll be back, I promise. There’s one or maybe a couple of these with my name on it so we’ll be back I do believe.”