One of the great things about Thoroughbred horse racing is it allows a hillbilly turf writer the opportunity to get philosophical. Do the words “hillbilly” and “philosophical” belong in the same sentence?… Just follow along and then render the verdict.
The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby provided another valuable lesson. The wonderful thing about this game is it offers a more simplistic view on some of the important values of a bigger game we all play…the game of life.
Bob Baffert came to Louisville looking for a record-breaking seventh training win in the world’s most famous race. Injury and other circumstances had depleted a once powerful lineup of runners in the Baffert barn, but the hall of fame conditioner still had a determined runner left in the batting order. So what do you do when you have lemons…you send lemonade to the plate and let him take a swing.
Medina Spirit had always shown a willingness to battle and just had a little something-something about him Baffert admires. A $35,000 purchase by Zedan Racing Stables, this Florida bred son of Protonico always ran hard and had never been worse than second in five career starts. Runner-up finishes in his previous two starts (San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby) had most thinking he had little chances at giving his connections Kentucky Derby glory.
Doing what Bob Baffert does, his team went to work preparing their Spirit for a run at glory. Even though the highly skilled and defending Derby rider John Velazquez was in the irons, the Medina team was totally under the radar in this edition. Baffert had worked to get his runner as right as he could be, now it was time to roll the dice and just have fun.
“I came in knowing he was tough and we had him ready, but we needed a lot of things to go right”, says Baffert. “We came in under the radar and I didn’t want anyone on our team to get too excited. We just wanted to enjoy being here and hope for the best. I have been to some Derbies that I didn’t think I could lose and then I lost. The night before the Derby every trainer and every owner thinks they are going to win the Kentucky Derby. Then the gates open and the whole scenario changes.”
The scenario did indeed change as Johnny V executed his game plan of getting Medina away from the gate well and making a comfortable lead. Guiding the field of nineteen through solid opening fractions (23.09 opening quarter, 46.7 half mile)things were falling into place. Moving with ease down the back stretch, the rider’s confidence grew as he felt the power of the Spirit beneath him. Turning for home and still running out front, things looked as if they might just get real.
As the race caller bellowed “and down the stretch they come” a hard running Mandaloun charged forward along with highly regarded Hot Rod Charlie and race favorite Essential Quality. Here is where the Spirit showed his heart and those admirable qualities that had put him in the Baffert barn. Refusing to let anyone by, Medina hunkered down and dug in. Continuing to gobble up ground, he found the wire a half length in front of Mandaloun and a length in front of Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality.
“We knew we had the jockey and he always does such a great job of getting horses away from the gate”, says Baffert. “It was a team effort and this horse showed me he was a helluva lot better than I thought he was. This is one of my biggest Derby wins and certainly one of the most thrilling.”
So here is the moral to an unlikely Cinderella story involving Bob Baffert. So I know you are asking do the words “Cinderella” and “Bob Baffert” belong in the same sentence. The answer here is yes. What put this all together and made it happen? The simple answer is faith. Faith is something that makes life so much better in every aspect and that was what guided a gifted athlete and a great coach to historic heights.
Big Race Bob has flat toted the mail during his time as he has delivered more grade 1 wins than any trainer in history. In winning the last two Kentucky Derbies with what were considered longer shots (Authentic 6-1 and Medina Spirit 12-1), he has proven his program works and does not need an overwhelming favorite to get it done. Faith in his people and his process has provided perhaps his most gratifying win beneath the twin spires.
Medina Spirit showed us all faith in what you stand for is rewarding. You can’t put a price tag on heart and even though he may have had a relatively modest purchase price, he can still run like he’s worth millions (or at least $1.8 million which was his winner’s purse).
Faith in doing the right things can be a guiding light as we know it can be a path for greatness to happen. In this case for the Medina Spirit team and Bob Baffert…it DID happen.