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Billy Reed: It couldn’t happen, of course, but it did — Bob Baffert wins the Roses with Medina Spirit

LOUISVILLE – No way Bob Baffert could win this thing again. No way he could break his tie with Ben A. Jones of Calumet farm by winning the Kentucky Derby a seventh time. Not with Medina Spirit, a little colt who sold for $1,000 as a yearling.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon. This week Billy is covering his 53rd Kentucky Derby week, counting down to Saturday’s Run for the Roses.

Yeah, right.

Repeat after me: Never ignore Baffert at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Never. No matter who his horse is, no matter what the odds, you’re nuts if you don’t at least bet $2 on his nose.

The silver-maned trainer won again with the little colt with the big heart. Ridden expertly by John Velasquez another relative old-timer, Medina Spirit went wire-to-wire in the 147th running of the world’s most famous and popular horse race.

“The record is great and all that,” said Baffert, “but just being able to do it again is the thing. This is a little horse, but he was all racehorse today.”

He was all that, and more. He won the winner’s share of the $3 million purse ($1.8 million) for owner Amr F. Zedan of Zedan Racing Stables, and covered the Derby’s mile-and-a-quarter in 2:01 2/5 for a half-length win over another longshot, Mandaloun. Hot Rod Charlie was third with the favored Essential Quality fourth.

Baffert, 68, and Velasquez, 59, became the oldest trainer-jockey combination since trainer Charlie Whittingham and jockey Bill Shoemaker did it in 1986 with Ferdinand. Both are like fine wine, getting better with age. More than anything, Medina Spirit’s victory was a tribute to their experience and seasoning in an age when youth seems to dominate everything, most notably social media.

While it’s debatable if Velasquez in the best jockey in history, it’s difficult to envision anybody disputing the notion that Baffert is the best trainer, better than Ben A. Jones, Woody Stephens, Laz Barrera, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Whittingham, D. Wayne Lukas, any of them.

Bob Baffert (Churchill Downs photo)

He first ran in the Derby in 1996, when his Cavonnier was beaten in a photo finish by Grindstone. Hooked on the 
Derby Experience, Baffert came back anytime he had a good horse, winning the Roses with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in ’98, War Emblem in 2002, American Pharoah in ’15, Justify in ’18, and Authentic last year.

Both American Pharoah and Justify also won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to win racing’s Triple Crown.

A Florida-bred son of Protonico, out of the Mongolian Change, Medina Spirit was sold for $1,000 as a yearling before being purchased by Zedan for $35,000. After he finished a non-threatening second to Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby, Zedan sent him to Churchill Downs, where Baffert told interviewers he probably wasn’t the best horse in the race.

Sent off at odds of 12 to 1 – they probably would have been higher had it not been for Baffert and Velasquez – Medina Spirit went straight to the lead and held off challengers virtually all the way around. In the turn for home and down the long Churchill stretch, he looked as if he were going to be passed several times.

But each time he found another gear and repelled the challenger.

Jockey John Velasquez and Medina Spirit (Churchill Downs photo)

“Johnny had him in a perfect spot,” Baffert said. “If you have him on the lead, he’ll fight. When those horses came to him…I can’t believe he won this race. It was all him. That little horse, it was all guts.”

Well, not really. It also was a lot Baffert and Velasquez, who struck a blow for the older folks in the COVID-reduced crowd of 58,000.

The last word belonged to Zedan, who is 21 years younger than his trainer.

“I’ve rehearsed this speech in the shower and on the treadmill,” he said, “but I never thought I was going to give it. To Bob, it’s not a job. It’s art. He’s like Picasso or Michelangelo. It just comes naturally.”

Nobody who watched yesterday’s masterpiece couldn’t possibly argue with that.

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One Comment

  1. Ron Sutton says:

    Never Bet against Baffert.

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