Making the Grade, which will run through the 2021 Triple Crown races, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
Following the Kentucky Derby, I like to go back in this blog and re-examine the victor to see how he arrived in the winner’s circle, what many of us saw or missed in him before the race, and how he profiles as a Preakness Stakes contender now that he most likely will be the favorite for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Medina Spirit was somewhat overlooked at 12.10-1 odds, but the reality is he almost certainly would have been 15-1 or higher had his trainer not been Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, now the winningest trainer in the history of the Kentucky Derby with seven victories.
Ability: Although he has not really been overlooked as a racehorse – Medina Spirit’s 12.10-1 odds in the Kentucky Derby marked the first time he had been double-digits and only the second time he had been higher than 7-2 – the Cinderella story fits in many ways for the 2021 Derby winner.
He is by a first-crop sire in Protonico whose numbers dwindled from 31 2-year-olds in his second crop to 14 yearlings in his third. Despite winning four graded stakes and earning $997,587, Protonico was not among the “fashionable” young stallion prospects when he retired.
Likewise, his dam (mother), Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed, was a $9,000 purchase at auction as a yearling who won only one of six starts. Medina Spirit sold for just $1,000 at the 2019 Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. winter mixed sale, after which breeder Gail Rice told BloodHorse she gave Mongolian Changa away because of a numbers crunch.
Medina Spirit subsequently sold for $35,000 to current owner Zedan Racing Stables at the 2020 OBS July sale of 2-year-olds and horses of racing age, obviously a larger figure than his initial price but very modest for a Thoroughbred racehorse.
Once he arrived in Bob Baffert’s barn, Medina Spirit has been all racehorse … and it’s true that he has never been passed by a horse in any of his races.
Medina Spirit won his debut in December 2020 at Los Alamitos by three lengths, then ran second to stablemate Life Is Good in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park in his 3-year-old bow. Many looked at that Jan. 2 stakes debut as his best performance leading into the Kentucky Derby as he finished second by three-quarters of a length to his subsequently sidelined stablemate, who was the fastest 3-year-old in the U.S. on paper this spring. The 109 Equibase Speed Figure and 99 Beyer Speed Figure he earned for the one-mile Sham made that his fastest race on paper entering the Kentucky Derby.
From there, Medina Spirit won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck in front-running fashion on Jan. 30 at Santa Anita. He then finished second, beaten by eight lengths by the aforementioned Life Is Good, who led every step of the way in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, and then second by 4 1/4 lengths to front-running Rock Your World in the Runhappy Santa Anita Derby April 3.
So, with two wins and three seconds in five starts entering the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit boasted a solid résumé and his speed figures painted him as a competitive entrant on paper. However, back-to-back races in which he was well-beaten made him tougher to endorse as a win contender.
Medina Spirit seemed like a candidate to run a solid race – because he always shows up – but many, myself included, thought he might top out at rounding out the trifecta or superfecta.
Of course, there also was the Baffert factor as he had won the Kentucky Derby six times entering the 2021 edition. While many regarded Medina Spirit as Baffert’s second- or third-stringer behind the injured Life Is Good and Concert Tour, as the trainer’s Derby lone entrant he warranted respect. The Baffert factor probably is why his odds dropped from 15-1 on the morning-line to 12-1 at race time.
In the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit got a near-perfect trip under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, hustling to the front and setting a measured pace through an opening quarter-mile in :23.09 and a half-mile in :46.70. When challenged nearing the quarter-pole by Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford winner Mandaloun, Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie, and champion Essential Quality, Medina Spirit easily could have faded but he’s been tenacious throughout his career and was ready and willing to battle to the finish line.
He finished his final-quarter-mile in :25.04 seconds to beat Mandaloun by a half-length, completing 1 ¼ miles is a very solid 2:01.02. That earned Medina Spirit a new top 110 Equibase Speed Figure and career-best 102 Beyer Speed Figure.
With three wins and three seconds in six starts, including the biggest prize in U.S. racing, there is no doubt Medina Spirit’s days of being overlooked are in the rearview mirror.
Running style: Medina Spirit was left alone in front in the Kentucky Derby, which was probably due to multiple factors. He wasn’t really feared as one of the favorites on everyone’s radar entering the race, several other speed horses did not get away to the best starts, and jockey John Velazquez is absolutely one of the best of all time at his craft. Medina Spirit’s three career wins have all come when he led or pressed the pace early and in all three victories he was in first by the second point of call in the race. He has stalked the pace in his three runner-up finishes, so it’s a good bet that Medina Spirit probably will try for the lead in the Preakness Stakes May 15. It’s also probably a solid bet that his opposition will be less willing to concede the pacesetting responsibilities to the Derby winner in the 1 3/16-mile middle jewel of the Triple Crown.
Connections: Founded in 2016, Zedan Racing Stables is the nom de course of Los Angeles native and Saudi Arabian businessman and philanthropist Amr bin Fareed bin Mohammed bin Zedan, a lifelong horse enthusiast and avid polo player. In addition to Medina Spirit, Zedan owns the filly Princess Noor, who won two graded stakes in 2020 before she was retired.
Bob Baffert won his seventh Kentucky Derby to become the all-time winningest Derby trainer this year, passing Ben Jones. His six previous wins came with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (2015), Triple Crown winner Justify (2018), and Authentic (2020). A four-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer and 2009 inductee into the Racing Hall of Fame, Baffert has amassed 17 victories in U.S. Triple Crown races and five of his six previous Kentucky Derby winners went on to also win the Preakness.
John Velazquez swept the Longines Kentucky Oaks with Malathaat and the Derby with Medina Spirit to become the eighth rider to accomplish that feat. He won his fourth Kentucky Derby following wins with Animal Kingdom in 2011, Always Dreaming in 2017, and Authentic in 2020. A two-time Eclipse Award winner who was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2012, Velazquez is the all-time leading North American rider by purse earnings with more than $435 million, but he has never won the Preakness.
Pedigree: I won’t dig too deep into pedigree here since I mentioned many of the key details in the Ability section when talking Medina Spirit as a “Cinderella” story. Plus, I view pedigree as most important as it pertains to unraced/unproven horses or how far in distance a horse might be reasonably expected to stretch out to and still excel. Since, Medina Spirit already has a win at 1 ¼ miles, we know the 1 3/16-mile distance of the Preakness should not be a deciding factor.
Medina Spirit is the lone stakes winner to date for Protonico from 49 foals age 2 or older and 10 starters. Protonico has sired three winners to date. His dam (mother) Mongolian Changa, by Brilliant Speed, earned her lone win at one mile from six starts and Medina Spirit is her lone foal to date.
Neither his grandam (maternal grandmother), Bridled, by Unbridled, or third dam (maternal great-grandmother) was a stakes winner or produced a stakes winner, but his fourth dam (maternal great-grandmother), Scoop the Gold, by Forty Niner, was a stakes winner who produced 2000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner High Yield.
Preakness Chances: I think you have to respect Medina Spirit entering the middle jewel of the Triple Crown given Baffert has won the race five times in six tries when he sent the Kentucky Derby winner to Baltimore. He also has tactical speed and has proved tough as nails when challenged in the stretch. Add in the fact that it looks like he won’t be seeing many of the other elite 3-year-olds from the Derby, and it looks like Medina Spirit has an edge on paper and profiles and a probable heavy favorite.
On the other hand, Baffert said himself that he wasn’t especially confident in Medina Spirit entering the Kentucky Derby, which took the pressure off him in the weeks leading into the race. Now, Medina Spirit will be challenged to duplicate a career-best performance on two weeks rest in a race where he’ll be the one everyone fears. There will be no coasting along unchallenged on the lead in the Preakness for the Kentucky Derby winner and I think he will really be pressured on May 15 at Pimlico.