By Dick Jerardi
When Bob Baffert came to Parx in September 2017, he was unfailingly polite and accommodating. He posed for photos and signed autographs for anybody who asked.
The biggest name in horse racing was there to run West Coast in the Pennsylvania Derby. The colt dominated the race, winning with ease. But it was the trainer who made the most lasting impression.
Baffert arrived at Parx that year as the winner of four Kentucky Derbies and one Triple Crown. Less than four years later, he is the winner of a record seven Kentucky Derbies and two Triple Crowns.
This time, Baffert won the Derby with a horse that cost $1,000 as a yearling and $35,000 as a 2-year-old. He did it with a horse that was essentially used as a first-turn blocker for his faster and more celebrated stablemate Life Is Good in the March 6 San Felipe Stakes, eventually finishing second by 8 lengths. A month later, after Life Is Good was sidelined with an ankle injury, that colt, Medina Spirit, was the odds-on favorite to win the Santa Anita Derby. Only he got outrun for the lead by Rock Your World, could never catch up and lost ground in the stretch.
So Medina Spirit, the second string, showed up at Churchill Downs way under the radar. Baffert himself did not appear overly confident, just not sure if Medina Spirit was good enough.
Buffert and his team are so good as so much that is required to succeed at the top levels of the sport that it is often overlooked how good they are reading races and formulating the proper strategy.
And it was that strategy that was the key to 12-1 Medina Spirit’s Derby triumph. The colt’s best win came in the Robert Lewis Stakes when he took the lead immediately and, despite good horses running at him the whole way, refused to give up the lead, even when he looked beaten numerous times.
So the plan was for John Velazquez to put Medina Spirit on the lead, if he was fast enough to get there. Providentially, two other potential speed horses, Midnight Bourbon (missed the break) and Rock Your World (sandwiched at the break) were essentially eliminated at the start. Then, when Florent Geroux, just to the inside of Medina Spirit on Mandaloun, chose to ride passively into the first turn and cede to lead to Johnny V. and Medina Spirit, the race set up just as Baffert had hoped.
Medina Spirit was alone in front, going comfortably in fractions of :23.09, :46.70 and 1:11.21, not at all fast on a track surface that was quite quick. Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie and favored Essential Quality were each just a few lengths behind, all within striking distance.
Those four separated from the field by the quarter pole and all flew home in about 25 seconds for the final quarter-mile. But when they are all running fast, the horse in front always has the advantage. Medina Spirit just kept running through the wire, with Mandaloun a half-length back and Hot Rod Charlie another half-length behind.
It was a wonderful horse race with a familiar result for a trainer who can rightly be described as an American sports legend.
Earlier on the Churchill Downs card, the 4-year-old filly Gamine won the Derby City Distaff, giving Baffert a record 220 North American Grade I wins, one more than D. Wayne Lukas. The Derby made it 221.
So, it’s on to the May 15 Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore where the first five of Baffert’s Derby winners won. Authentic, the 2020 Derby winner did everything but win the Preakness last year as the brilliant filly Swiss Skydiver held off the eventual Horse of the Year.
Baffert also won the Preakness with non-Derby winners Point Given and Lookin at Lucky. So that is seven Preakness winners to go along with the seven Derby winners. Point Given and Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify each won the Belmont Stakes for Baffert, giving him a record 17 Triple Crown race wins, a record that is likely only to be surpassed by one man – Bob Baffert.
THE PARX CONNECTIONS
When Brooklyn Strong left Barn 9 at Parx the Monday evening before the Derby, the colt was, in every way, a last-minute addition to the Derby field. Trainer Danny Velazquez would certainly have preferred a chance to make a detailed plan, but the opportunity to run came up at the last minute. So there was no time for a real plan as the colt headed out on his 12-hour van ride to Louisville.
Whatever small chance 43-1 Brooklyn Strong had to be a Derby factor was gone when the colt hesitated at the start. Never in contention, the Brooklyn Strong checked in 15th, beaten by 18 1/4 lengths.
Parx Hall of Famer Kendrick Carmouche got his first Derby ride on Wood Memorial winner Bourbonic. It did not help that the colt drew the 20 post, 19 after King Fury scratched. Bourbonic, who went off at 30-1, has no speed and from that post, Carmouche had little choice but to head for the rail and the back of the pack where all that flying dirt must have felt like he was riding through a desert. Second to last early, Bourbonic passed a few late to finish 13th, beaten by 16 lengths.