The things we say. The promises we make to ourselves.
“If you kids don’t behave, I’ll turn this car around.”
“If he is elected president, I’m moving to Canada.”
And the line that was muttered over and over and over after Medina Spirit led the whole way Saturday to win the 147th Kentucky Derby.
“I will never bet against Bob Baffert again.”
Most everyone among the 51,838 was on another horse. There were 51,837 who had fewer than $2.4 million on Essential Quality. Mattress Mack did. He doesn’t win ’em all, but it seems like Baffert does.
Now with seven victories, Baffert broke his tie for the Kentucky Derby record with Plain Ben Jones, who dominated Churchill Downs with horses like Whirlaway and Citation in the Calumet Farm heyday on either side of World War II.
“I’ve never been keeping score of records and stuff,” Baffert said. “Seven wins? I can’t believe I won two. Every time we won it, (wife) Jill and I look at each other and say, ‘Can you believe we won the Kentucky Derby again?’”
This time he did it with a colt that was no better than the third-best 3-year-old in his barn. Life Is Good was the Derby favorite until he got hurt. Concert Tour was among the shortest-priced contenders until he was a wash-out in the Arkansas Derby.
It might have sounded like it, but this actually was not the least likely Derby victory for Baffert. That would have been the one-geared, 20-1 long shot War Emblem in 2002. But like that year, and like last year with Authentic, it was a gate-to-wire victory for Medina Spirit, a 12-1 shot sired by Protonico (Protonico?) that sold for only $1,000 two winters ago before Amr Zedan bought him last summer for $35,000, the equivalent of 11 of Mattress Mack’s mattresses.
“He’s a beautiful horse,” Baffert said of his “little” colt that weighed only 1,123 pounds when he finished second to Rock Your World last month in the Santa Anita Derby. “If you looked in the paddock today, he looked like he’s growing. I can tell he’s filling out now. He’s started to mature. He felt good, and he was on it. He walked in there like he didn’t care about the other horses.”
Maybe, just maybe Medina Spirit became the alpha dog again Saturday. He had finished second in three of his last four races coming to Kentucky. The only exception was the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in January, when Abel Cedillo had the ride. The last two runner-up finishes by a combined 12¼ lengths were with Hall of Famer John Velázquez, who was content in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby to take Medina Spirit off the pace.
Not this time.
“I started the race really well,” said Velázquez, who is now one of only four jockeys to have won the Derby four times. “I know all the horses in the races, and I thought there was only one horse faster than me. It was (Rock Your World) who was in the lead last time at Santa Anita. I said if I break well, I’m going to try and outbreak him. If he needs to go faster than me, then he can go faster than me. I broke really well. I was first the first time we go past the wire. I looked outside, and he was not there.”
For the second year in a row, Velázquez never trailed in the Derby. This time it got exciting at the end when Mandaloun (26-1) was breathing down his neck only to finish a half-length behind. Hot Rod Charlie (5-1) was a length behind in third, and Essential Quality (5-2), forced wide after a bumpy start, was fourth. According to Trakus he had to go 68 more feet that Medina Spirit to finish within a length of a payday for most bettors – or $9.36 million for Mattress Mack.
Medina Spirit opened at 100-1 last December in the Derby futures in Las Vegas. Players could have gotten that price as late as New Year’s Day. He was still 70-1 on Jan. 19, 60-1 on Jan. 25 and 55-1 on March 19, the week after he closed 39-1 in the pari-mutuel futures book conducted by Churchill Downs. Even six hours before the race, he was best-priced in Nevada futures at 25-1 before he attracted some late money.
Talk about attracting money. The Derby’s $1.86 million first prize brought Medina Spirit’s career earning to $2.15 million. Not bad for a $35,000 investment from Zedan.
“I knew he had a heart that’s bigger than his body,” Zedan said. “All we needed was for him to be up front and just keep fighting, because no one was going to pass Medina if Medina really got the lead.”
That he did, and it will take him to the Preakness Stakes in two weeks, where Baffert had intended to send Concert Tour after that baffling, third-place finish at Oaklawn Park last month. Now Baffert might have to change his plans, especially as he tries to add to his seven wins in Pimlico’s biggest race. Until Authentic lost last October to Swiss Skydiver, he had been 6-for-6 with Derby winners in the Preakness.
Such decisions can wait until next week. Or at least until sunrise on Barn 33 at Churchill Downs, where Baffert will be out early Sunday to breeze Concert Tour.
As far as Zedan is concerned, Baffert is an early riser who is the ultimate equine artist. Make that artiste.
“It’s like Michelangelo,” he said. “Pablo Picasso. It just comes out. It comes naturally. You don’t find that in people a lot, especially those who excel. You just can’t be by coincidence a seven-time Derby winner. You can’t win two Triple Crowns. It just doesn’t happen.”
And if Baffert should break his tie with 19th-century icon Wyndham Walden for most Preakness victories, don’t expect him to be counting out loud.
“I’m so fortunate,” he said. “That means I was surrounded with great, great people.”
From assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes to the hot walkers and grooms and morning riders, they clearly have Baffert’s trust. And they undoubtedly have faith in Baffert.
It is a safe bet that none of them said, “I will never bet against Bob Baffert again.” Chances are since they went to work for him, they never have.
I wonder if Mattress Mack joined in that muttering.
Ron Flatter’s regularly scheduled racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It is posted more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Every episode of the RFRP is available at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.