That left him with the little colt with the $35,000 price tag, sending Medina Spirit up against the cavalry of high-priced equine giants in the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby on Saturday was like sending Little David against Goliath with an empty sling shot.
But because Baffert is Baffert, with a multitude of horses scattered from California to Louisville, what you thought was not what you got. As one talented trainer who already has won America’s race of races, deadpanned the other day, racing against Baffert is like a neighborhood bodega competing against Amazon.
Baffert had his serious doubts with good reason. When a Baffert horse goes off at 12-1, even Baffert knows there could be trouble in Derby City.
Enter, jockey John Velasquez, a three-time Derby winner before last Saturday. Baffert was convinced they had almost no shot. He had the same thought last year with a colt named Authentic. When they huddled the day before, Johnny V told him, “Relax, I know how to ride this one.” Baffert said after Authentic won, “I let him decide.”
Friday, when they huddled before an even more daunting situation, Baffert again listened to the wit, wisdom and equine knowledge of Johnny V. Before the trainer went to sleep on Derby eve without a clue as to what Johnny planned, he texted him: “You ride him. I don’t care what you do.”
The jockey had won the prestigious Kentucky Oaks on Friday. After he won an undercard stakes on Saturday, he told reporter Donna Brothers, “I’m going to go as soon as the gate bangs open, I’m going for the lead in the Derby.
It was like he was sending a message to Baffert, who won his seventh Derby: “Have no fear, Johnny V is here.”
It began to fall his way as soon as they left the starting. Rock Your World, who beat Mindset in the Santa Anita Derby, was slammed by another colt and his race was over then and there. Early in the initial battle to set the pace, Johnny V stole it as he had planned and led almost all the way.
Medina Spirit wasn’t the biggest and he wasn’t the strongest, but as Johnny V believed, he turned out to be the fastest. Halfway through the race, Baffert didn’t like what he saw. He believed Velasquez was “out of horse.” And those other horses were coming to get him.
The stretch challenge came from Mandaloun (26-1) and Hot Rod Charlie (5-1). The heavy favorite, unbeaten Essential Quality, Mandaloun’s stable mate, finished a well-beaten fourth.
I remember writing in my pre-race column that the best horse doesn’t always win. The gutsiest one usually does. I was right about that. Baffert’s junior-varsity runner is undersized and underrated. But Velasquez knew what he could do. Velasquez and Baffert knew he was a fighter. But Baffert didn’t begin to believe until he got to the eighth pole. Before that, he thought “Well, he’s still in the race and maybe …”
The family didn’t actually begin to root until they hit the stretch, and in the post-race press conference, he still had trouble believing it.
“Mr. Positive here,” Baffert said, pointing to Velasquez, “told me, ‘Don’t worry. He’s going to win.’ I like that. I need somebody like that, because I always go in ready for that punch to the gut.” And this time, he had ample reason.
The owner, Amr Zedan, had bumped into Baffert in a Dubai airport when the trainer was on his was to the Saudi Cup and between flights, they talked for two hours.
“I’m thinking, ‘I want to get back in (racing). Maybe we can get together and win the Derby,’” Zedan said.
Baffert laughed and said, “Yeah, right, sure.”
Then Zedan went out and bought Medina Spirit at a basement bargain price.
“This is a Cinderella story,” Baffert said. “Just this morning, he asked me if I thought we had a chance to light up the board. `I don’t know We might. You never know,’ I told him.”
But at the finish, Zedan didn’t know anything.
“Down the stretch, everything turned gray and then everybody is jumping on me. I don’t know. It was emotional. It was surreal. It was just amazing.”
For the record, Mr. Zedan, you just won the Kentucky Derby.
The space for more race plaques on Barn 33 at Churchill Downs is running out of room, but trainer Bob Baffert will have to squeeze in another one after he won a record seventh Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) with Medina Spirit May 1.
Baffert stood outside his Louisville barn the morning of May 2, previous accomplishments displayed in the background, after showing off a bright-eyed Medina Spirit.
“There’s no other race like it,” Baffert said of the Kentucky Derby Sunday. “The seven hasn’t sunken in yet. To be able to do it and then get it with a $35,000 horse … it keeps people’s dreams alive.”
Orlando Cruz, groom for @KentuckyDerby winner #MedinaSpirit, the morning after in the @BobBaffert barn @ChurchillDowns. @KyHBPA @SAPublicity More post race news @BloodHorse #BHDaily #BH+ pic.twitter.com/rKKLFXBrKT
— Anne Eberhardt Keogh (@BH_AEberhardt) May 2, 2021
Medina Spirit, ridden to victory Saturday by John Velazquez, was a $35,000 2-year-old purchase by owners Zedan Racing Stables. In his last Derby prep race, he finished second in the April 3 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby (G1), leaving Baffert in a familiar place.
“I know that I’ve had a lot of winners that ran second in the Santa Anita Derby that win the (Kentucky) Derby,” the Hall of Fame trainer said. “My son, Bode, told me the night before, ‘Dad, I think we’re going to win because every time you ran second in the Santa Anita Derby, you win the (Kentucky) Derby.'”
Baffert’s Derby winners Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) were others to run second in the Santa Anita Derby one start prior to winning the Run for the Roses. Authentic won the 2020 Santa Anita Derby last June before taking the TVG.com Haskell Stakes (G1) in July and the Kentucky Derby in September in a year of shifted calendars from COVID-19. His 2018 Triple Crown winner, Justify , won the Santa Anita Derby.
Even more impressively, six of Baffert’s Derby winners have gone on to win the Preakness Stakes (G1). Authentic was only a neck away from doing so when edged by the filly Swiss Skydiver in October.
Though Baffert didn’t fully commit Medina Spirit to the May 15 Preakness yet, he didn’t see any immediate signs that would keep the Protonico colt from heading to Pimlico Race Course for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
“He came out of it well. It usually takes about a week. I just watch them closely. I’m going to come back next weekend, but right now I don’t see anything that would discourage me,” Baffert said.
The trainer added this year, instead of coming in with one of the race favorites, he felt no pressure with Medina Spirit (final odds of 12-1), similar to 2002 Derby winner War Emblem (20-1).
“I thought he could hit the board and run a good race, but to win with him it’s like a Cinderella story,” Baffert said. “Here’s a horse that’s just a blue collar horse, but he’s got the heart of a champion. That’s what I love about that horse. He reminds me of Silver Charm. Just digging in, he would not let those horses past.”
|Born||January 13, 1953
Nogales, Arizona, U.S.
|Career wins||3,046+ (ongoing)|
|Major racing wins|
|American Classics wins:
Kentucky Derby (1997, 1998, 2002, 2015, 2018, 2020, 2021)
Preakness Stakes (1997, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2010, 2015, 2018)
Belmont Stakes (2001, 2015, 2018)
United States Triple Crown (2015, 2018)Breeders’ Cup wins:
Breeders’ Cup Sprint (1992, 2007, 2008, 2013, 2016)
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (1998, 2007)
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (2002, 2008, 2013, 2018)
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint (2011)
Breeders’ Cup Classic (2014, 2015, 2016, 2020)
Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (2020)International stakes wins:
Dubai World Cup (1998, 2001, 2017)
Dubai Golden Shaheen (2015)
Robert A. Baffert (born January 13, 1953) is an American racehorse trainer who trained the 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify. Baffert’s horses have won seven Kentucky Derbies, seven Preakness Stakes, three Belmont Stakes and three Kentucky Oaks. He holds the record for most Kentucky Derby wins by a horse trainer with Medina Spirit’s win at the 2021 Derby.
Baffert grew up on a ranch in Nogales, Arizona, where his family raised cattle and chickens. When he was 10, his father purchased some Quarter Horses and he practiced racing them on a dirt track. In his teens, he worked as a jockey for $100 a day in informal Quarter Horse races on the outskirts of Nogales. He moved from there to racing at legalized tracks, scoring his first victory at age 17 in 1970.
Baffert graduated from the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program with a Bachelor of Science degree, got married, and began training quarter horses at a Prescott, Arizona farm. By age 20, he had developed a reputation as a trainer and was hired by other trainers to run their stables. In the 1980s, Baffert moved to California and worked at Los Alamitos Race Course, where he switched to training Thoroughbreds. He got his first big break in 1992 when he won his first Breeder’s Cup race with Thirty Slews. He became the leading money-winning trainer in the United States four times.
Finally, after waiting eight years, Baffert trained Lookin At Lucky, co-owned by longtime client and good friend Mike Pegram, to win the Preakness Stakes in 2010. The colt skipped the Belmont Stakes but became the champion three-year-old colt that year. In 2012, Baffert saddled Bodemeister, named for the trainer’s youngest son, Bode, to second-place finishes in the Derby and Preakness. He saddled Paynter in the Belmont Stakes later that year, but that colt, like his stablemate Bodemeister, finished second.
In 2015, Baffert trained the 2014 champion two-year-old colt American Pharoah to win the Triple Crown, the first to do so in 37 years. He won the 141st Kentucky Derby, bringing his total number of victories in the race to four; Baffert also ran the third-place finisher, the previously undefeated colt Dortmund. American Pharoah next won the 140th Preakness Stakes, making six victories in that race for Baffert, who also finished fourth with Dortmund. Then, when American Pharoah won the 2015 Belmont Stakes, the win was the fourth attempt at a Triple Crown for Baffert, who at age 62 became the second-oldest trainer to win a Triple Crown.
29 of Baffert’s horses failed drug tests over four decades, including four horses in the 2020.
Baffert has trained horses that won fifteen American Classic Races, fifteen Breeders’ Cup races, three Dubai World Cups and the inaugural Pegasus World Cup. In 2010 Baffert scored a first when Misremembered, a horse he bred, owned by his wife Jill and their friend George Jacobs, won the Santa Anita Handicap, marking Baffert’s first Grade I win as a breeder. He also has nine wins in the Santa Anita Derby, nine in the Haskell Invitational Handicap, and fourteen wins in the Del Mar Futurity, a race he won seven straight times from 1996 to 2002, when run as a Grade II event. He also won the race in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018 when run as a Grade I event. He has won the Kentucky Oaks three times: first in 1999 with Silverbulletday, who was later selected for the Hall of Fame, then with Plum Pretty in 2011 and lastly with Abel Tasman in 2017. Following Authentic’s win the 2020 Kentucky Derby, Baffert tied the record for most Kentucky Derby wins at six. Only Ben Jones, who won Kentucky Derbies between 1938 and 1952, would also score six Kentucky Derby wins as a horse trainer.
Baffert has trained for numerous owners including The Thoroughbred Corporation (Prince Ahmed bin Salman), Golden Eagle Farm (John C. Mabee), the late Bob Lewis and his wife Beverly, Robert and Janice McNair, for whom he trained champions Chilukki and five-time Grade I winner Congaree, and his good friend Mike Pegram, for whom he has trained champions Real Quiet, Silverbulletday, Captain Steve, Midnight Lute, and Lookin At Lucky. In 2014, Baffert teamed with owner Kaleem Shah to win his first Breeders’ Cup Classic with Bayern. Most recently, Baffert has trained horses for Zayat Stables, including Pioneerof The Nile, Zensational, Bodemeister, Paynter, and American Pharoah, and for Juddmonte Farms, most notably Arrogate.
Baffert was inducted into Lone Star Park’s Hall of Fame in 2007, and in 2009, he was nominated and inducted to the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. Baffert was elected alongside one of the best fillies he trained, Silverbulletday. Point Given was nominated in 2009, but elected and inducted in 2010.
Triple Crown in-the-money finishes
|The Kentucky Derby
|The Preakness Stakes||Belmont Stakes
- ✝ – won Triple Crown.