LOUISVILLE — Somehow, in one of those curious and goofball ways about sports, a win by a tandem of titans Saturday doubled as some sort of dreamy little tale of the dogged underdog. How strange.
But then, wait, the being who won this Derby foremost would be somebody called Medina Spirit, an unimposing Florida-bred colt who sold for $35,000 last summer at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales of July for 2-year-olds and horses of racing age. He’s the one who charged out to the lead, fought, fought some more, fought still more and held off 18 others, especially the three he led in a frantic diagonal line of head-to-shoulder chargers to the finish. He’s the one with two previous wins and three previous seconds who finished in a fine 2:01.02 and paid $26.20 to win and bested by half a length second-place Mandaloun, who edged by a head third-place Hot Rod Charlie, who nudged by a head the favorite, Essential Quality.
And that’s how the best trainer in Derby history, one of the best jockeys in Derby history and a Saudi owner who among other pursuits heads the Saudi Polo Federation came to speak in the tongues of everyday Derby dreamers.
“I never imagined last night I was going to be sitting here,” Baffert said.
“This opportunity doesn’t come very often, for a man like me that’s on the age that I’m on right now,” said Velazquez, 49, who keeps having the opportunity with Derby wins at 39, 45, 48 and 49.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening before my eyes,” Baffert said.
“I’m just trying the really digest this thing,” owner Amr Zedan said. “... I mean, this is really surreal. It really just can’t believe it.” He told of a stretch with a view disrupted by people jumping around and said: “It was emotional. It was surreal. It was just amazing.”
Then Baffert, from this mighty consortium of life’s favorites, went for the sports-cliche, Derby-cliche jugular: “It’s a Cinderella story.”
This kind of incongruity that only sports could concoct happened at the close of a Derby day on which the country’s oldest continuous sporting event served as bit of a symbol of the country’s slow molt from the throes of the coronavirus pandemic. Whereas the postponed Derby of Sept. 5 had reeled with a lousy hush, this on-time Derby seemed rather lush. Whereas that late-summer Derby 2020 featured only a smattering of spectators, those with connections to the entries, Churchill Downs this time let in an announced crowd of 51,838, about 40 percent of normal but well above the abnormal of 2020.
Vivid colors returned, the pinks and oranges and baby blues. Flowers atop hats again proliferated. Couples walked hand-in-hand and argued only anecdotally. Cigars dangled from the mouths of young men. Social distancing had waned as a concept. The old sounds came back, including the age-old sighs of those losing money out loud. The infield returned to a partial life of its various and cherished sins. With the food and beverage policy of this pandemic Derby, ticket holders qualified for free food and beverages.
Bars, shuttered last time, reopened. Non-frightening lines formed outside them. At the bourbon stands, people got free mint juleps.
They did not seem to mind, and then by 7 p.m. a strand of fresh experience went even to Bob Baffert.
At 68, Baffert has so many Kentucky Derby wins that they stretch like considerable pearls from 1997 (Silver Charm) to 2021. He has Derby winners who the intellectuals favored (American Pharoah, Justify) and those they overlooked (Real Quiet), but the Derby still managed to provide a fresh experience.
“Usually when I come in here, I feel like if I don’t win,” and then he trailed off a bit and said: “I bring in these heavy-duty horses. And this year, I really enjoyed myself. I came in under the radar.” Shortly he would add, “Pharoah won; Justify, it was really, ‘We got through here.’ ”
But Velazquez kept marveling in the run-up, and so what they did, trainer and jockey, proved similar to what they did eight months ago at the 2020 Derby. They had their horse, then Authentic, go out to the lead and then dare and then fight. Baffert noted that in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Jan. 30 at Santa Anita, “When [Medina Spirit] goes out there fast in the race and they turned for home and they come at him, he wouldn’t let them pass.” Medina Spirit’s only losses had come when he had to chase. Baffert told Velazquez, “If you’re turning for home on the lead, maybe he’ll give you the rest.”
Then Velazquez and Medina Spirit roared to the lead while Velazquez checked for the only horse he perceived as faster than his, Rock Your World, the second choice who had left Medina Spirit second in the Santa Anita Derby, who had suffered a bumptious exit from the gate and who would finish 17th.
“I looked outside; he’s not there,” Velazquez said.
Soon came the stretch, of which Baffert said, “I kept waiting for all those horses to pass him.” Then: “Still there.” Then: “Still there.” Then: “Still there.” Then it was all the way back to 1997 for this assessment: “For this little horse, what he did today, he’s got so much of Silver Charm in him — just a fighter.”
Then Baffert, who has lived recent years amid suspicions of malfeasance and who recently had a horse-doping suspension overturned and two wins restored by the Arkansas Racing Commission, had something weird. He had an upset, involving an owner with whom he had conversed unexpectedly at a lounge in a Dubai airport a while back, when Zedan decided to pursue the Kentucky Derby.
“A lot of people at their jobs, it’s kind of mechanical, and that’s their job,” Zedan said. “With Bob, it’s an art. It’s the gut.” The seven wins “can’t be by coincidence,” he said, adding, “You’re just witnessing art in motion,” even as with Medina Spirit, they all had just witnessed heart in motion.