Medina Spirit
Medina Spirit held off Mandaloun to win the Kentucky Derby. Photo Coady Photography/Churchill Downs.

It wasn’t going to be Bob Baffert’s year this year. Not with promising sophomores like Life Is Good, Concert Tour, Hozier all falling away before the Kentucky Derby.

Not when his only entrant in Saturday’s Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby was the – well, let’s face it – second-tier contender Medina Spirit, who’d been a well-beaten second in the Grade 2 San Felipe and in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

But when it comes to the Triple Crown races, every year is Bob Baffert’s year, it seems.

Seemingly a second-tier contender, sent off at 12-1, Medina Spirit showed plenty of spirit, grabbed the lead early, and never let his rivals by, leading throughout and holding off Mandaloun to win by a neck in the 147th Run for the Roses.

“We talked about it, he’s all heart,” winning rider John Velazquez said of Medina Spirit. “We said, ‘Let’s put him in the game and let him fight all the way around.’”

Velazquez earned his fourth Kentucky Derby win. That draws him even with Bill Shoemaker; only Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, with five Derbies each, have won more.

All four of Velazquez’s Derby wins have come in the last decade, including, now, back-to-back runnings. Oddly enough, all four of his Derby heroes have met defeat in the Middle Jewel, the Preakness Stakes, which this year is scheduled for May 15 at Pimlico Race Course.

In today’s Derby, a bit of a scrambling start saw post-time favorite Essential Quality and Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World bump each other hard. That didn’t do either of them any favors – both were expected to be forwardly placed – but did allow Medina Spirit to grab the early advantage.

The early pace was solid, and the leaders were bunched through a half-mile in 46.70 seconds and three quarters in 1:11.21. For all that, however, four of the horses among the early vanguard – Medina Spirit, Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and the quick-to-recover Essential Quality all were among the top six early – suggesting that, though fast, the pace was not enervating.

In particular, Florent Geroux on Mandaloun appeared to have a ton of horse rounding the turn, and as the field neared the quarter-pole, he slipped through inside a tiring rival before tipping out and going to the attack. Mandaloun reached near-even terms at the head of the lane but could never get by. Hot Rod Charlie was in with a chance in between horses; the resilient Essential Quality circled the field and menaced.

But in the end, Medina Spirit held them all at bay. Mandaloun finished second, while Hot Rod Charlie was third and Essential Quality fourth. The top four were separated by just a length. Running time for the 10 furlongs over a fast main track was 2:01.02.

“This little horse, he’s always shown that he’s an overachiever,” Baffert said. “His heart is bigger than his body.”

For Baffert, a two-time Triple Crown winner, the victory gave him his seventh in this event, the most of any trainer in history, breaking a tie with Ben Jones. No other trainer has more than four Derby triumphs.

Baffert also has six Preakness victories. His first six Derby winners, including Triple Crown champs American Pharoah and Justify, all repeated in the Preakness. That streak ended last year when the filly Swiss Skydiver edged the Baffert-trained Derby winner Authentic.

Medina Spirit returned $26.20 to his backers and topped an exacta that was worth $503.60 on a two-dollar wager.

Medina Spirit now has three wins from six starts, and the winner’s share of the Derby purse will push his career earnings past $2 million. That’s nothing to sneeze at for a horse who sold as a yearling for $1,000 and then again last July, at two, for $35,000.

The Florida-bred Medina Spirit will presumably look to keep Triple Crown hopes alive in two weeks in Baltimore. There, he may find some of his beaten rivals from today, as well as some newcomers.

But owner Amr Zedan wasn’t looking too far ahead just yet.

When asked today what his goal had been when he got into horse racing a few years back, he replied, “Naturally, it was the Kentucky Derby, right? That’s the show.”