Maybe it’s that Medina Spirit’s mom, Mongolian Changa, produced no milk, so it’s a good thing breeder Gail Rice had frozen an extra supply from another mare who had given birth prior. “It’s what we learn,” said Rice, 59. Maybe it’s the mental picture of Rice and her daughter-in-law, Emily, trying to help the foal squirm to life.
Maybe it’s that thing about the seventh Florida-bred Kentucky Derby winner selling for $1,000 as a yearling at the 2019 Ocala Breeders’ Sales here in Florida horse country while nobody eyeballed him save for two women, the breeder who adored him and the keen consigner who admired him, Christy Whitman. “Nobody,” Whitman emphasized. Maybe it’s that thing about the breeder getting into the sport only at 21 when one night after her 4-to-midnight shift data processing, she ran into a high school friend and horseman and future husband, Wayne Rice, at a hotel bar in a Holiday Inn near Harrisburg, Pa.
It could be the farm itself, where Rice’s son Kevin and his wife Emily reside, and where Gail Rice stayed at foaling time in a camper by the driveway. Rather than being greeted by a sentry stand and a guard who operates a electronic gate, one heads right up the short drive by the palmettos and moss and cypress and sycamores and gets greeted just outside the car door by Dougie, a Catahoula Leopard Dog, and Otter, an Australian shepherd. The ecosystem itself can prove downright recuperative: dogs, goats, a week-old foal hanging next to the mare, chicks scrambling around in the grass, potbellied pigs named Chester and Walter. “He’s such a cool dude,” Rice said, patting Chester.
There goes Waylon, Rice’s 2-year-old grandson, driving around in one of those little tractors, so cocksure in his steering and his blue boots that at one point he goes down the driveway and appears headed maybe for Publix before acceding to his mother’s order for a U-turn. And here comes Bailey, Rice’s 4-year-old granddaughter, to tell of the six bunnies she keeps in two cages in her bedroom, and to hear a visitor remark that she has beautiful hair.
“Yes, I do,” she says.
The Kentucky Derby winner came from here, in the same pod of history of recent Derby winners Authentic ($350,000 at Keeneland Sales as a yearling), Justify ($500,000), Always Dreaming ($350,000) and American Pharoah ($300,000). He started with a woman who doubles as a vivid storyteller with a rich and ready laugh, who stays friendly with her two ex-husbands, one of whom gave her Mongolian Changa, and who sits up nights poring over the screen and venturing to the weeds of mare-and-sire study.
So in this you’re-kidding story, she comes easing down the driveway around 2 p.m. on April 5, 2018, and she notices the foal’s legs are starting to protrude, and she hurries and shouts and manages to round up Emily, and …
“So I’m like, ‘God told me to get my butt home, right in time,’ ” Gail Rice said, “because the feet were coming out too far up and torn through, and so, it was like, ‘We’ve got to get the feet down,’ and then it wasn’t stretching, and, ‘Emily, just pull this!’ ”
Emily: “Oh, yeah.”
Gail: “And then we’re like, ‘Kevin!’ Kevin was in the house, and his phone wasn’t on him, it was on vibrate, and she’s trying to dial my phone, because my hands are slippery from the baby, and it’s like, ‘Where’s your phone,’ and I’m like, ‘It’s right here!’ She’s grabbing my phone and we’re trying to dial it and …”
Emily: “We’re covered in amniotic fluid, and ugh …”
Gail: “It was exciting. It was.”
Then there’s this colt, and they’re taken with him, with “the fluidity of his movement, just the smooth,” Rice said. “He floated. And he was happy all the time. But he loved to play, and he played hard with all his friends.” Then she had to make the kind of hard, hard call horse people have to make with finances shrieking in the background — in this case, to keep just one horse (her mare Scribbling Sarah) and sell others, including the comprehensively lovely colt.
But his pedigree did not radiate, even as the esteemed Ocala outfit Summerfield Sales Agency readied him for the January 2019 Winter Mixed Sale, Hip No. 448 among 689 horses at that sale alone, and even Whitman did not recognize the name of the sire Rice had chosen, Protonico, but did note he stands in Kentucky, so that’s something.
“I’ve always been on a budget,” said Whitman, 37. “You know, I used to go to all the barns, and make shortlists, and all that sort of stuff, but then, all the horses I liked, I couldn’t afford them. I said, ‘I can pick a good horse, but I can’t afford to buy it.’ So I kind of got away from doing that, so I usually park in the back ring somewhere, and just that way I can see every horse that comes up, so I don’t miss an opportunity … I have looked at so many horses, you know, beautiful horses, really, really good-looking horses, really crooked, really awful-looking horses, so it’s really helped train my eye to see the difference, because you’ve gotten to see the good ones and you’ve gotten to see the bad ones so you know what you’re looking for.”
She saw Hip No. 448, and she knew her exercise rider Jose Gallego had asked if she might choose something for him to ride, and she thought this might fulfill that and, besides, she finds pedigree overemphasized in general to the point of people choosing duds based upon it. She values athleticism.
“You know, he was just athletic-looking,” she said. “He was really well-balanced, had a great hip, great top line on him. You know, those things are, to me, really important in an athlete. He was basically correct. He wasn’t perfect, but you know, good enough. Moved through it well. And nobody was looking at him. Nobody. I mean, not in the back ring, not right before he goes in the ring, nobody’s looking at him.”
She bid the $1,000, and Rice felt bummed and thought to bid against her to drive up things, but concluded that would be dishonest, as one who attends a “cowboy church” where “people wear boots and jeans and hats.” The price stood, while not all that different from a handful of prices around it in the sequence, and Rice kindly thanked Whitman, and Whitman said they’d prepare him for one of Ocala’s 2-year-old sales. That’s where, in July 2020, the bloodstock agent Gary Young bought him for a still-modest $35,000 for Amr Zedan, who enlisted trainer Bob Baffert.
Soon Rice and Whitman et al detected Medina Spirit’s capacity to fend off those rivals who dared look him in the eye, as would happen in the Derby, and soon they’re at the first Saturday in May. That’s Rice in Louisville with her daughter Taylor, an accomplished jockey, and son-in-law Jose Ortiz jockeying another entry (Dynamic One), and down the stretch they come, and her phone bounces and records only blurs and sound, and she’s running and telling those in earshot, “I pulled him out of his mother!” And Whitman watches at an equestrian center in Ocala with her daughters, ages 13 and 12, and she does something she’s not prone to do: She weeps.
Then the Ocala horse community bubbles, phones lighting up all over, in this place of long highways outside town past horse farms, businesses selling saddles and whatnot, purple flowers in fields, stop signs where one might look across the big two-lane road and spot two horses galloping around a track, with a high school near Medina Spirit’s birthplace utilizing the mascot “Colts.”
Sure, there’s some joy in outdoing the mighty Kentucky, which has yielded 111 of the 147 Derby winners, and sure, there’s wonder in seeing this happen for a self-described “backyard breeder” like Rice, whose family tree loads up with horsewomen and horsemen. But mostly, it’s this: “We all know each other,” said Jay Friedman of Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company, “so I think that’s what it’s really all about.”
Then it’s also about women who are more formidable than they realize, and this moment almost no one gets to have, and its byproduct everyone should have: validation.
Just last year, Whitman got another human condition: burnout. Wells Bayou, whom she also had consigned, had won the Louisiana Derby but suffered derailment with bone bruising. “Too many disappointments coming along,” Whitman said. “Sometimes you wonder, ‘What am I doing, why am I doing this?’ ” Then: “ ‘If I’m not doing this, what am I going to do?’ ” Now: “It’s like it took all the difficult situations and all the bad things that have been going on and just kind of made all that disappear. You know, it gives you renewed hope, and purpose in what you’re doing, and kind of validates the fact that you’re here and maybe you can get there one day.”
Money might follow, but then Rice did say, “The money doesn’t matter, because it’s the validation that what I was doing was working.” She said, “We’re here in life to have experiences.”
Wait, maybe that’s the utmost detail, if that’s not too human-centric. Here’s hoping Chester the pig remains too cool to mind.
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