Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit faces stiff Triple Crown challenge

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

May 3rd, 2021

Day-after reflections on the Kentucky Derby (G1) involve not only an analysis of how the race was won and lost, but also what it portends for the remaining jewels of the Triple Crown. While Medina Spirit’s victory was both brave and historic, his task only gets tougher from here.

Medina Spirit’s ideal set-up

Medina Spirit was a worthy winner who deserves all the praise for digging in and fending off every challenge. His scrappy running style reinforces his underdog status, from his incredible background as a $1,000 yearling to an entire Derby trail spent in the shadow of gaudier stablemates.  

At the same time, Medina Spirit so far has only way to win: on the lead, refusing to let anyone pass. When he’s been beaten to the front, the hard-trying colt has finished second. In a big Derby field with at least a couple of other forward types, his one winning scenario didn’t appear likely. That’s why Medina Spirit went off at 12-1, despite representing six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert.

But circumstances aligned to hand Medina Spirit the set-up of his dreams. One critical piece of the puzzle came last weekend, when fellow frontrunner Caddo River was ruled out of the Derby.

The next decisive point came at the start, when Rock Your World, who had just dominated Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby (G1), was virtually eliminated by a hesitant break, getting pinballed between foes, and having jockey Joel Rosario lose a stirrup. Even a more experienced runner would have been up against it from there, but the lightly raced Rock Your World didn’t stand a chance.

Also, Midnight Bourbon didn’t have the aggressive trip forecast by Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen; as a one-paced galloper, he needed to be right near the early lead to have any shot. Instead, he was farther back early than ever before in his life, and did well in the circumstances to rally for sixth.

Thus, Medina Spirit entered the clubhouse turn having assumed the lead with no problem, and Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez’s body language said it all. Although he had an early pace attendant in Soup and Sandwich, Medina Spirit had already found his comfort zone. His superb gameness carried him the rest of the way.

The Cox pair’s what-might-have-beens

Aside from the pace factors who never played their hand, hitherto unbeaten favorite Essential Quality can rue his adverse circumstances of being hung out wide on both turns. According to Trakus, the Godolphin champion covered 68 feet more than Medina Spirit, yet went down barely a length in fourth.

His stablemate from the Brad Cox barn, near-miss runner-up Mandaloun, has a different kind of regret that has nothing to do with his trip. The Juddmonte blueblood in fact worked out a great trip, parked just behind Medina Spirit early. Clearly full of run entering the far turn, he angled out to accost the leader and looked to have him dead to rights in upper stretch. Then Mandaloun met the immovable object of Medina Spirit’s fighting spirit and settled for second.

Yet Mandaloun might have been hitting another obstacle too. Considering his flop in the March 20 Louisiana Derby (G2), where he hardly ran much of a race, his last actual performance that could have helped him fitness-wise was his prior victory in the Risen Star (G2) – on Feb. 13. My biggest concern going into the Kentucky Derby wasn’t his talent, but rather whether he could be fit enough off a six-week gap from a prep that did little for him. There’s a parallel from 2019 with War of Will, who starred at Fair Grounds over the winter, had a miscue in the Louisiana Derby where he didn’t get into any sort of gear, trained brilliantly leading up to the Run for the Roses, but retreated (well after the interference from Maximum Security).

Mandaloun turned in a fantastic effort, as sharp as Cox could possibly get him off works alone. But did a non-effort in the Louisiana Derby cost him that last half-length down the stretch at Churchill Downs? If so, the Kentucky Derby could serve as his tightener for the Preakness (G1) – just as it did for War of Will who roared back to win the middle jewel.

From understudy to history-maker for Baffert and Velazquez

Baffert’s record-breaking seventh Kentucky Derby victory is even more remarkable since Medina Spirit was third on his depth chart this spring. While Baffert had compared Medina Spirit to his first Derby winner, Silver Charm, after his hard-fought success in the Jan. 30 Robert B. Lewis (G3), his grit was overshadowed by the flair of his stablemates.

Twice he was runner-up to Life Is Good, the barn’s early Derby favorite who was sidelined by injury in late March. Concert Tour in the meantime had jumped up to conquer the Rebel (G2), prompting Baffert to compare his performance to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. The comparison came to naught when Concert Tour was a deflating third in the Arkansas Derby (G1). Not ready to wheel back at Churchill Downs, Concert Tour has been mentioned as a candidate for the Preakness – which now means a potential showdown with Medina Spirit.

Velazquez’s fourth Derby win elevates him into a tie with Bill Shoemaker for second on the all-time list. He needs just one more to equal the record of five held by Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack. Adding to Velazquez’s achievement, he became only the seventh jockey in Derby history to win back-to-back, having guided Authentic (also for Baffert) last year. Moreover, Velazquez won Friday’s Kentucky Oaks (G1) aboard unbeaten Malathaat, becoming the eighth rider to turn the Oaks/Derby double in the same spring.

Oaks star Malathaat to the Belmont?

The previous jockey to land the Oaks/Derby double was Calvin Borel in 2009, when Hall of Fame filly Rachel Alexandra romped by an Oaks-record margin, and the Derby witnessed a 50-1 shocker by Mine That Bird. Rachel Alexandra might have won that Derby, an idea validated when she went on to beat Mine That Bird et al in the Preakness.

Perhaps there’s a vague historic parallel with this year – a bunch of colts lacking a standout at the moment, and an exceptional filly with the size and scope to take them on.

Malathaat has been described as a “star” by trainer Todd Pletcher, who’s not averse to pitching the right filly in against males. In 2007, his Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches advanced to the Belmont (G1), where she outdueled Curlin in a race for the ages. Malathaat, herself a daughter of Curlin, is Triple Crown-nominated, and her trainer is leaving the door open for a Belmont bid.

“We’re not sure about that one yet,” Pletcher said Sunday. “She’s a special filly and appears quite capable of running the distance. At some point this year she’s likely to take on the boys, but we’re still not sure where or when that might be.” 

It’s fun to play the hypothetical game, if Malathaat had tried the Derby. But she was making just her second start of the year in the Oaks, and had to overcome a tough break to prevail. Malathaat handled it in the Oaks, but it’s a lot harder to do in the crowded Derby, especially without enough of a prep foundation. She stands to benefit from her Oaks effort, and the Belmont is a more appealing spot – third start of the campaign, a more typical field size, and the sweeping contours of Belmont Park.

Verdict: The three-year-old picture has a long way to go

The stretch battle in the Derby was a thriller, an instant classic thanks to its combination of history and sentimental value. As the arbiter of divisional leadership, however, it leaves more questions. Different circumstances can bring Medina Spirit back to earth, and help the Derby hard-luck stories re-assert themselves.

Moreover, given how evenly matched the Derby field appeared going into Saturday, it’s possible that the best three-year-old wasn’t even there. Aside from what might happen when the imposing Malathaat tries the boys, and Baffert’s early-season stars return, a few up-and-comers are waiting in the wings. Baffert’s Triple Tap (a half-brother to American Pharoah), Chad Brown’s Stage Raider (a half to Triple Crown sweeper Justify), and John Sadler’s Flightline all crushed their maidens in the manner of top prospects who will be heard from as the year unfolds.

Add in international intrigue too. Japan’s France Go de Ina is coming for the Preakness and staying for the Belmont, and Godolphin’s Rebel’s Romance, the UAE Derby (G2) romper, has shipped into Belmont Park for the “Test of the Champion.”

The Derby was just the opening act of the drama.