Even Baffert was taken aback by the shock by a colt who cost $1,000 as a yearling and had just two wins from five starts.
The triumph was much sweeter for the silver-haired trainer since some of his most promising prospects had fallen out of contention for the Triple Crown, leaving Medina Spirit as his only chance.
Baffert, who is usually in the spotlight during Derby week, had been going under the radar and out of the Churchill Downs spotlight as Medina Spirit was ignored by the majority of the professional handicappers.
That all changed in 2 minutes and 1.02 seconds. Medina Spirit took the lead the first time around the finish line, thanks to John Velazquez’s running. Setting an honest tempo, he looked to be tiring momentarily as the field swung through the long Churchill Downs stretch.
On a day when the front-runners seemed to be doing well throughout, no one could beat Protonico’s son.
Mandaloun, who had run second or third for the majority of the 1 1/4 miles, narrowly got to even terms at the mid-stretch, then finished second, a half-length behind the leader, with Hot Rod Charlie third. The favourite, the previously unbeaten Essential Quality, came in fourth place.
“I cannot believe he won that race,” said Baffert. “I knew he was working hard, but I’m always stunned. He’s a little horse with a huge heart.”
Velazquez let Rock Your World take the early lead in his previous race, the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, and was unable to catch him.
“Last time, the other horse showed so much speed and just kept running,” said Velazquez, who won the Derby for the fourth time. “Today, I told Bob we were going to put him on the lead and see what happens.”
Rock Your World, meanwhile, was soundly bumped at the start Saturday, shuffled back in the 19-horse field and beat only two rivals as one of the wagering favorites.
Medina Spirit now has won three of his six career starts. He was 4 1/2 lengths back of Rock Your World at the finish of the Santa Anita Derby and, in the race before that, finished second, 8 lengths behind another Baffert horse, Life Is Good, in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
Now, only he has a chance to become Baffert’s third Triple Crown winner, following American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
The Preakness Stakes will be held at Pimlico in Baltimore in two weeks, followed by the Belmont Stakes in New York three weeks later.
Zedan Racing Stables, established in 2016 by Saudi businessman Amr Zedan, owns the colt. He traded hands twice, with Zedan purchasing him for $35,000 the second time. His earnings from the Derby increased his bankroll to $2,175,200.
Medina Spirit is named after Medina, the second holiest city of Islam after Mecca.
Protonico is a son of Giant’s Causeway, a major figure in English and Irish breeding who finished second by a neck to Tiznow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in 2000.
Storm Cat, whose progeny have helped form American racing, sired Giant’s Causeway.
The Derby was the pinnacle of an otherwise impressive day for Baffert, who broke a tie with Ben Jones to become the all-time top Derby trainer.
Earlier on the Churchill Downs card, he saddled Gamine to victory in the $500,000 Grade I Derby City Distaff, his 220th Grade I victory. He was tied for the record with D. Wayne Lukas.
He sent out Du Jour to win the $500,000 Grade II American Turf two races later. The frying pan for tha
t was sweetened by the fact Baffert’s wife, Jill, is a co-owner, and that Baffert seldom trains turf horses.
After more than a year of pandemic prohibitions, Saturday’s 147th running of the Derby was a ray of sunlight – physically and metaphorically.
Due to these precautions, Churchill Downs had to postpone last year’s Run for the Roses by four months to September, and the race was run without spectators.
The fans returned on Saturday, but in far fewer numbers than average. The weather was beautiful, and with a little imagination, “normal” could be seen on the bluegrass horizon.
Particularly now that “normal” seems to imply a Baffert horse winning the Kentucky Derby.