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Ashway: A little horse with a great, big heart
Denton Ashway

Medina Spirit, a 12-1 longshot, won the 147th Kentucky Derby Saturday, in case you missed it.

Which was easy to do, what with the two-minute race sandwiched into five hours of coverage. With so many outrageous hats, ties, and revelers, it struck me that the Derby has almost become a parody of itself. I mean, where else do people still wear hats and ties? Even so, five hours of it seems a bit much.

But I digress. Medina Spirit’s victory should go down in history as one of the great upsets of all time. The horse sold for $1,000 at a yearling sale, and current owner Amr Zedan bought the colt for $35,000.

“He doesn’t know how much he cost,” trainer Bob Baffert told the Associated Press. “But what a little race horse! I cannot believe he won this race. That little horse, that was all him, all guts. He’s always shown that he’s been an overachiever. His heart is bigger than his body.

“I’m really, really surprised.”

In six career starts, Medina Spirit garnered three wins and three places. Two of the losses came at the hooves of Life Is Good, another Baffert horse. Life Is Good might well have gone off as the Derby favorite but for an injury. Baffert even had another horse, Concert Tour, which he considered a better Derby horse than Medina Spirit.

But what the heck. You pay your money, you take your chance. The gates opened, and jockey John Velazquez put Medina Spirit right on the lead. And no one challenged him. That’s one of the benefits of going off at 12-1 odds. Had one of the favorites taken the lead, someone would have gone after him.

All race long we kept waiting for the challenge; none came until the stretch. Mandaloun came on the outside, with Hot Rod Charlie outside him. Further outside was the favorite, Essential Quality.

None got by Medina Spirit.

“I kept waiting for all those horses to pass him,” Baffert continued. “When he got to the eighth pole, we said, ‘This guy has got a shot!’ I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I’m so spoiled, bringing these heavy-duty horses in here, and this little horse … has a big heart.”

Medina Spirit’s win made it back-to-back Derby triumphs for the Baffert-Velazquez team. They won last September with Authentic. Velazquez’s beautiful ride resulted in his fourth Derby win, tying him with Bill Shoemaker. Only Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack, with five each, won more.

“I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d win four Derbies,” Velazquez told Jon Hale of the Louisville Courier-Journal. “I never look at the numbers. I just want to come and do my job. I want to come and do the best job I can do for the people that I’m working with. I take pride in what I do and I’m very blessed in the opportunities I’ve been given.”

Velazquez became just the seventh jockey to win successive Derbies, and gave credit to Medina Spirit. “Every time I asked him to give more, he kept fighting on,” Velazquez told Joe Drape of The New York Times. “When you ride a horse like this who is competitive, you can’t ask for anything else.”

Of course, Velazquez knew how to ride a competitive horse. “He’s so cool,” Baffert told Hale. “He’s such a professional. When you work with guys like this, him, a Mike Smith, they’re just so smart. They know every move, they know every horse, what they’re going to do. He knew exactly what he was going to do.

“When I went to sleep [Friday] night, I didn’t think about what Johnny would do, how he was going to ride. ‘Listen, you ride him. I don’t care what you do. You know the horse pretty well now.’ Here we are!”

While Baffert’s smart enough to let Velazquez ride his own race, he’s also smart enough to be the winningest trainer in Derby history. Saturday was his seventh Derby triumph, moving him past Ben Jones, who won six. Jones’ six wins from 1938 to 1952 included Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948.)

Baffert’s seven wins have all come since 1997; he’s won seven of the past 25 Derbies. “There were some Derbies I lost and thought I couldn’t lose,” Baffert told Dan Wolken of USA Today. “But this is the only Derby I came in thinking, ‘I just don’t know if we’ve got the goods.’”

Turns out a smart jock and a little horse with plenty of heart were all the goods he needed.