June 6, 2023

Hanson: Unlike Medina Spirit, some Derby vanquished had uphill climb

Medina Spirit, with John Velazquez up, wins the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs (Photography by Jamie Newell/TwinSpires)

Bob Baffert officially became the all-time leading trainer of Kentucky Derby (G1) winners on Saturday when Medina Spirit pulled off a 12-1 upset, bringing the Hall of Famer’s blanket of roses total to seven. Truth be told, though, Baffert arguably had the record for some time.

Ben A. Jones of Calumet Farm fame, with whom Baffert was previously tied for the mark, frequently asserted parental prerogative over his son, H. A. “Jimmy” Jones, by insisting his name be listed as trainer in the program for Citation (1948), Ponder (1949), and Hill Gail (1952) when they happened to run at Churchill Downs. Pretty much every other time those colts raced, especially in the case of the legendary Citation, it was Jimmy who deservedly got the full training credit.

Medina Spirit resembles Baffert’s first two Derby winners in some respects. Like Silver Charm, Medina Spirit is a Florida-bred without a commercially attractive pedigree. Real Quiet, Baffert’s second winner, also sold for a relative pittance at auction.

Medina Spirit and Real Quiet’s race records entering the Kentucky Derby are generally dissimilar, except for the fact both were non-threatening runners-up in their final prep, the Santa Anita Derby (G1), to horses the crowd at Churchill Downs sensed were among the “next big things,” but proved not to be on Derby Day for different reasons.

I’ll echo Kellie Reilly’s analysis on how circumstances ultimately benefited Medina Spirit, and that he’ll need to ultimately prove he can win more than one way. However, one long-term effect this result will have is that it’s unlikely you’ll ever see more than 10-1 available on any Baffert entrant in a Derby again, especially in an evenly-matched one like 2021’s. That doesn’t mean they won’t deserve to be taken seriously on merit, obviously, but expect underlay odds regardless.

Reilly also makes a convincing argument that Mandaloun got relatively little out of the Louisiana Derby (G2) and was arguably at a fitness disadvantage when push came to shove against Medina Spirit in deep stretch. Although Authentic won last year’s “outlier” Derby off a seven-week break and Animal Kingdom won the 2011 edition off six weeks, the latter gap still seems a bit much, generally speaking.

That might have also played a role in Hot Rod Charlie not quite getting there, either, and it’s disappointing his connections are not considering the Preakness (G1) as he’d likely improve a lot off his weekend performance. Hot Rod Charlie is by Oxbow, the upset winner of the 2013 Preakness, but is reportedly being freshened for the Belmont S. (G1). On the surface, his pedigree doesn’t exactly scream for a mile and a half.

Beaten Derby favorite Essential Quality ran admirably in defeat, racing much wider throughout than the above three after exchanging blows with Rock Your World soon after the start. Like stablemate Mandaloun, he could prove a strong threat in the Preakness, and at a price better than the 2.90-1 on offer Saturday.

Baffert will be looking to break another tie in two weeks for most Preakness wins ever by a trainer. While it would be foolish to discount Medina Spirit’s chances of giving him his eighth win in the Pimlico classic, the two prospective rivals that finished within a length of him in the Derby had a lot more working against them than they might in the Preakness.

It should be an intriguing handicapping, betting, and race-watching exercise.