Five Key Takeaways From the 2021 Kentucky Derby

Medina Spirit set the pace in the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and battled gamely in the stretch to prevail, giving trainer Bob Baffert his seventh win in the race. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom Pedulla presents five takeaways from the 147th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday at Churchill Downs:

PADDING RECORD: In moving past legendary “Plain Ben” Jones with his record seventh Kentucky Derby triumph, the logical question is, “How many more 68-year-old Bob Baffert can tack on?” His first three victories occurred in rapid succession: Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). An extended dry spell preceded the current torrid stretch that brought Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), then Authentic (2020) and now Medina Spirit. The question is not easy to answer, even for Baffert. “Eight? Whatever. I may never have another horse good enough for this, but we’re not going to give up.” With deep-pocketed owners clamoring for his services, there is no telling how high is high.

UNLIKELY COMBINATION: New York-based John Velazquez, 49, did most of the heavy lifting that allowed him to become the all-time leading rider in earnings on the East Coast. Baffert is all West Coast cool. And yet the two of them have formed a dynamic combination in the latter stages of their careers, connecting to win the Derby last year with eventual Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year Authentic and now bringing home the roses again with Medina Spirit. “I think I do a good job in what I do. And he has given me the option to stay around and ride these kinds of horses,” Velazquez said. Baffert appreciates Velazquez’s professionalism and preparedness. “He knew exactly what he was going to do,” the trainer said of his fellow Hall of Famer. 

NOT ALL BAD: Brad Cox had hoped to become the first Louisville native to win the Derby. He came within half a length of making that happen, but not with the colt everyone expected. With all eyes on undefeated favorite Essential Quality, it was Louisiana Derby sixth-place finisher Mandaloun that rallied to within half a length of Medina Spirit without being able to edge past. Essential Quality wound up fourth after a difficult trip. Cox said of Mandaloun: “He ran huge. He saved ground along the inside, battled and battled hard. Thought he had a shot to win there. Just came up a little short.” Mandaloun, a son of Into Mischief owned by Juddmonte Farms, had displayed quality before the Louisiana Derby dud by winning the Risen Star.

Carmouche and Bourbonic. (Joe Labozzetta/NYRA Photo)

INSPIRATIONAL MESSAGE: Kendrick Carmouche drew considerable pre-race media attention because his participation in the Derby underscored the lack of top-flight African-American riders in the sport. He was the first U.S.-born African-American jockey to bid for the roses since Marlon St. Julien ended a 79-year drought in 2000, the same year Carmouche began riding. Rather than lament the situation, the ever-upbeat Carmouche, the son of a jockey, hoped his ability to finally land a Derby assignment would inspire others of all races. “I see it as somebody I can be looked up to, that can help people with their own situations fight through it much as I did,” he said. Unfortunately for Carmouche, longshot Bourbonic was never a factor after breaking farthest outside and finished 13th.

CHANGE NEEDED?: Rick Nichols, general manager of Shadwell Farm, and trainer Todd Pletcher urged Churchill Downs to re-examine its qualifying system to allow high-caliber fillies such as Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Malathaat a shot at reaching the Derby without compromising their Oaks chances. “There needs to be a way to qualify one or two of the two fillies each year, if the owner would like to run against the colts,” Nichols said, adding that the regally-bred Malathaat “probably could have” beaten the boys. Said Pletcher: “I’ve heard some speculation that they’re looking at some things, and I think that they should.” No filly has competed in the Derby since Churchill Downs instituted the current system in 2013.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!