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Billy Reed: The beautiful, sunny morning after the Derby, meeting a fresh Medina Spirit up close

LOUISVILLE – A little past 8 a.m. yesterday, a small gaggle of photographers, TV people with their cameras and microphones, and a few writers were gathered outside the Kentucky Derby winner’s barn, the only place worth being on the backside the morning after the Kentucky Derby.

Once again, for the seventh time in 24 years, the barn in question was the one where trainer Bob Baffert keeps his Derby horses and a few others. On a concrete wall are signs painted with the names of all the great Baffert horses who have stayed in the barn at one time or another. Names like Silver Charm, Real Quiet, American Pharoah, and Justify, the last two both Triple Crown winners.

Meeting with Bob Baffert at his Churchill Downs barn on the Morning after the Derby

I parked nearby and accompanied by my older daughter Amy and her husband Rob Frederick, we joined the group waiting patiently for Baffert to come outside for interviews or bring out Medina Spirit, the longshot winner of Derby 147, for a bath and rubdown on another glorious morning at the track that has been home to the Derby since 1875.

I caught a glimpse of Baffert talking to some folks inside the barn, so I moved closer in the hope of getting his attention.

After all, we have known each other since 1996, when he came to the Derby with Cavonnier, second by a nose to Grindstone. Baffert was hooked. He realized the Derby was the race of all races, and he decided to come back every year he had a good horse.

At that moment, Darren Rogers, the director of communications for Churchill, stepped out of the barn, saw me, and motioned me to join him.

“I want you to see a Derby winner you’re not going to believe,” Darren said.

And with that, he took me inside the barn. When we passed Baffert, he broke into a smile and interrupted his conversation. “Good to see you, Billy,” he said. “It’s been a long time.” I congratulated him and we moved on down the shed row to see Medina Spirit up close and personally.

Since he’s a small horse who was pressed virtually every step of his wire-to-wire victory, I was expecting to see a very tired horse. Instead, Medina Spirit was frisky, his nearly black coat gleaming. He looked ready to go out and run another mile and a quarter if Baffert wanted.

“Can you believe that?” Rogers said. “I’ve seen a lot of Derby winners the day after the race, and I’ve never seen one look as fresh as this one.”

In my mind, I began revising my selections for the Preakness, the second jewel in racing’s Triple Crown, schedule to be run on May 15 at Pimlico in Baltimore. If Medina Spirit came out of the Derby looking like this, it might be a huge mistake to not play him to win the Preakness.

Meeting Derby champ Medina Spirit

On the way out, we stopped to chat with Baffert a few moments. He assured us he was genuinely surprised to win the Derby with Medina Spirit. He just thought the colt wasn’t as good as the unbeaten favorite, Essential Quality, or Rock Your World, who trounced Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby.

“Bob,” I said, “I’ve covered 53 of these things and it’s starting to feel as if you’ve won at least half of them.”

“Trust me,” Baffert said, “it never gets old.”

His seventh win broke a tie with the late Calumet Farm trainer Ben A. “Plain Ben” Jones for most victories for a Derby trainer. Jones won his six from 1938-’52, a span of 14 years. Baffert got his seven from 1997-2021, a span of 24 years.

After winning his third with War Emblem in 2002, he didn’t win the Derby again until American Pharoah did it in 2015 to begin his Triple Crown sweep. He then won it with another Triple Crown winner – Justify in 2017 – and followed that by taking the Derby with Authentic last year.

Both Authentic and Medina Spirit were ridden by the veteran John Velasquez. Like Baffert, he’s already in the Racing Hall of Fame. He also won Friday’s Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies with Malathaat.

When Baffert finally stepped out of the barn and into the morning sunshine, the media moved in closer, but before Baffert could give an interview, he was introduced to Gail Rice, who bred Medina Spirit by mating the stallion Protonico with the mare Mongolian Changa.

She put the colt up for auction as a yearling, and he was purchased by pinhooker Christy Whitman, who then sold him as a 2-year-old to Zaden Racing Stable for $35,000. Owner Amr Zaden then turned him over to Baffert, who liked the little colt’s fighting spirit.

“Do you think Protonico’s stud fee just went up a little bit?” Baffert asked Rice with a laugh.

He enjoyed questioning Rice so much that he kept the media waiting. Then, before he took a cell phone call and ducked back into the barn, I managed to ask which of his seven Derby winners he thought was best. Or could it be a horse like Point Given, who lost the Derby before delivering powerful wins in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes?

After running all his classic winners through his fertile mind, Baffert finally said he thought American Pharoah was the best of all.

As we left the scene at the barn, I felt a great sense of mission accomplished. Actually, thanks mostly to Darren Rogers, I got more than I expected. And, naturally, I was happy that Baffert had greeted me so warmly.

For a guy who wasn’t even thinking about going to the Derby a month ago, my 53rd turned out to be one of my happiest and most fulfilling ones. I heard from so many old friends and made a lot of new ones.

And it rekindled my love of the Derby so much that in the deep recesses of my mind, I began thinking if I might stay healthy enough to do it again next year, same time, same place.

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