Derby Recap: The Stuff of Dreams

Even a Bob Baffert victory in the Kentucky Derby, as common as it has become, occasionally has a back story to warm the soul. This is one of those stories. ~ Steve Haskin

Derby Recap: The Stuff of Dreams

By Steve Haskin

It was a scene that has become all too familiar. Yes, Bob Baffert won yet another Kentucky Derby. Yes, he won it with a horse on an unchallenged lead. No, none of the closers were ever in the race. We’ve seen this movie before, but if you happened to walk in at the end of this particular movie you missed the best part.

It would be like seeing Cinderella live happily ever after with Prince Charming without knowing how she got there. In the world of Thoroughbred racing, Cinderella usually never meets Prince Charming or attends the king’s ball. But there are those very rare occasions that the fairy tale does come true, and that is where the story of the 2021 Kentucky Derby begins.

For Christy Whitman and all those whose lives revolve around mostly cheaper horses, they are too busy trying to eke out a living to ever dream about blankets of roses draped around their horses or mingling in the same circles as Bob Baffert and racing’s nobility. If they ever do dare to dream of such things they are quickly jolted back to reality.

When Whitman attended the 2019 Ocala January mixed sale, she came with her usual small budget hoping to find a couple of cheap newly turned yearlings that she could one day pinhook and hopefully make a small profit. She can’t afford to look for horses at the larger sales later in the year, so she attends the bargain basement sale at the beginning of the year when young horses are still babies and it requires a keen eye to project what they will be like when it is time to breeze them in front of prospective buyers at the horses of racing age sales.

On this particular occasion, Whitman’s exercise rider Jose Gallego, who breezes her horses, asked her if she could pick up something inexpensive for him to pinhook. Whitman is a back ring buyer. Before the horses enter the sales pavilion they walk around the back ring. That is where Whitman watches them and tries to spot one that catches her eye, mainly how they walk and how correct they are. You rarely see a horse at these sales that is perfect so you have to learn when to forgive imperfections, which many horses will grow out of.

Being a back ring buyer Whitman doesn’t have enough time to send a vet to look at the X-rays or scope a horse. In addition it gets to be expensive to have multiple horses vetted. So she quickly checks the vet’s findings on the radiographs that the consignors bring to the sales ring with the horse. Having an unfinished degree in equine physiology at the College of Central Florida’s equine program, she took several classes and did a great deal of studying on how to read the vet reports and understand the terminology. This enables her to make snap decisions on whether a horse’s issues are something she can deal with and if she should take a chance or not. Decisions have to be made quickly before heading into the sales pavilion.

One horse that caught Whitman’s eye in the back ring was a smallish colt, almost black in color, who had a great walk, a good top line, and seemed very athletic. He did have a very mild case of sesamoiditis (pressure or stress on the sesamoid bone), but nothing she would consider an issue. She looked at his page in the catalog and saw that he was a son of Protonico, who she never heard of.

“I could picture him standing in someone’s backyard,” she said. Although she wasn’t familiar with Protonico or the broodmare sire Brilliant Speed, she liked what saw from a physical standpoint. The breeder of the colt, Gail Rice, was going through a divorce at the time and had to sell one of her two colts. She chose the Protonico colt and was so desperate she didn’t even put a reserve on him. She would take whatever she could get for him.

As it turned out nobody ever even looked at the colt and when the bidding opened at the bare minimum of $1,000, Whitman’s was the only bid. No one had even the slightest interest in this obscurely bred colt. “I guess nobody liked his catalog page,” Whitman said.

After the sale, Rice went over to Whitman and thanked her for buying the colt and asked her what she was going to do with him. Whitman told her she was going to send him to her farm and probably pinhook him the following year. The goal now was to make a decent profit for Gallego, which wouldn’t be difficult considering the rock-bottom price she paid for him.

At the farm, Whitman liked everything about the colt. “He was well-mannered, easy to ride, and very professional,” she said. Jose helped break him and began riding him and thought he was a good mover with a great temperament and liked what he felt under him. Although he was laid back he began to show something on the track. Maybe they actually had a runner on their hands. Whitman and Gallego were excited to get him into a 2-year-old sale.

“I really never get to sell anything halfway decent,” Whitman said. “With his pedigree and what we paid for him we couldn’t get in any of the big sales so we got stuck in the July sale.”

Whitman consigned the colt under the name Whitman Sales, agent, and did not charge Gallego any fee. At the breeze show, which is all about speed and how well a horse gets around the track, they put blinkers on the colt for his three-furlong breeze. Gallego mounted Hip No. 938 and at 10:30 a.m. with the temperatures already nearing 90 degrees, he broke off on a 33-second ride that would one day change his and Whitman’s life. The colt was smooth and responsive around the turn, cut the corner beautifully, and changed leads on cue after straightening into the stretch. Gallego drew his whip in his left hand just to show it to him and the colt began striding out, flicking his ears around. When Gallego pushed him nearing the wire the colt pinned his ears as if knowing it was time to let it all out. He cut the corner sharply on the gallop-out and then was pulled up after what looked to be an excellent work.

All Whitman and Gallego could hope for now was that someone watching was impressed enough to bid on the colt. That someone was professional clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young, who purchased him for $35,000 for Zedan Racing Stables, a moderate price in the grand scheme of things, but still a hefty profit on the original $1,000.

Whitman was thrilled when she found out the colt was being sent to Bob Baffert. The colt, now named Medina Spirit, showed that same speed he displayed at the sale when he won his debut by three lengths in a swift 1:02 4/5 for the five and a half furlongs. Baffert felt he didn’t need the blinkers. If he was to become a Derby horse he had to harness some of that speed so he removed them for his next start, the one-mile Sham Stakes.

But at Baffert’s barn there usually is always someone faster, and he had a rocket named Life is Good who looked to be his main Kentucky Derby hopeful, and it was a bit of a surprise to see Medina Spirit gaining ground quickly on Life is the Good in the late stages of the Sham Stakes, although the winner was being eased down the stretch. There was another colt in the barn named Concert Tour who also was very fast and appeared to have a bright future after winning the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, so Medina Spirit was relegated to third best of Baffert’s Derby horses despite scoring a gutsy victory in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, in which he refused to let the promising Roman Centurian and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Hot Rod Charlie get by him, winning by a neck in three-horse blanket finish.

Medina Spirit continued to run hard every race but still couldn’t beat Life is Good, who finished seven lengths ahead of him the San Felipe Stakes. But Medina Spirit came out the race with a small ulcer in his throat and began showing signs of entrapping his epiglottis, so they performed a procedure to correct the problem and he didn’t get back on the work tab for another 16 days. He then was beaten 4 ¼ lengths by rising star Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby, but like in the San Felipe he battled back to finish second. In five starts, he had never finished worse than second.

Baffert had other promising colts in the barn, including grade 1 winner Spielberg and several well-bred youngsters who were fast but late getting started. However, when it was time for the Kentucky Derby, Baffert was down to one colt – Whitman’s $1,000 purchase. Life is Good had injured himself and Concert Tour suffered a surprising defeat in the Arkansas Derby and it was decided to skip the big race and possibly wait for the Preakness.

“I couldn’t believe it when he wound up with Baffert and was so thrilled he turned into such a good horse,” Whitman said.

On Derby morning, the excitement began to build and the scope of it all finally sunk in. “For this little colt to be the only one left to make the Derby is unbelievable,” she said.

All Whitman knew was that if he could get the lead he would be very hard to pass. “This horse has so much heart and guts and has so much fight in him I know they won’t have an easy time getting by him. In the Robert Lewis, the way he fought them off, I’ve never seen a horse fight like that.”

Whitman normally would watch the Derby at home with her two daughters, Ashley and Erica, ages 11 and 12, but with the new World Equestrian Center in Ocala having a Derby party she decided to watch it there. It had been a tough year for her and her daughters. Like Gail Rice, she had recently gone through a divorce and felt it would be good for all of them to get out and be with people and enjoy watching their horse on the big screens. That week her youngest daughter took her shopping to buy her a dress with the money she had earned from selling her show lamb at the local county fair. So they wound up getting matching dresses to wear at the party.

“They both have grown up at the barn and at the sales,” Whitman said. “I was on the pony horse and pregnant at the OBS June sale each year they were born, so they have been involved with the consignment through the years. They know this is huge for me and an important accomplishment, but I’m not sure they really grasp just how special and how once in a lifetime this moment is.”

It was as if Whitman had scripted the entire race out, as Medina Spirit went to the lead and dictated the pace. Just like in the Robert Lewis, they came at him in the stretch – Risen Star winner Mandaloun, Louisiana Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie, and the undefeated 2-year-old champion and favorite Essential Quality. Once again, the little black colt with the big heart wouldn’t let any of them get by him.

Sometimes you never know what is hidden behind a $1,000 sales slip. That pedigree no one was interested in more than two years earlier had once again come out in him. It was a pedigree inundated with horses who showed great courage and a willingness to fight. His sire that no one heard of won the 2015 Alysheba Stakes at Churchill Downs after a stretch-long battle in which he appeared to be beaten. But he lunged forward at the wire to stick his nose in front. Protonico is a son of Giant’s Causeway, arguably the gamest European horse in the past quarter of a century, winning five consecutive Group 1 stakes by under a length, including three by a head. In each race he refused to let the best horses in Europe get by him. And don’t forget his gutsy performance against the equally courageous Tiznow in the Breeders’ Cup Classic when his rider dropped the reins right before the wire, losing by a neck. Medina Spirit’s broodmare sire Brilliant Speed won the Blue Grass Stakes by the closest of noses; Brilliant Speed’s sire Dynaformer won two stakes by a nose and a half-length; and Dynaformer’s sire Roberto won the English Derby in the closest finish in the history of the race, outbattling eventual Arc de Triomphe winner Rheingold in a finish so close his rider Lester Piggott dismounted before it was official because he thought he has lost. Finally, in Medina Spirit’s tail-female family, his third dam is by Holy Bull, out of a Forty Niner mare. Holy Bull scored one of the gutsiest victories in the history of the Travers Stakes and Forty Niner was involved in nine photos, winning the Haskell and Travers by a nose, outgaming Seeking the Gold each time. That is the family you want in a street fight, and Medina Spirit has yet to let any horse pass him in the stretch.

And of course it doesn’t hurt having three doses of the legendary Secretariat in your pedigree through his three omnipotent daughters Weekend Surprise, Terlingua, and Secrettame. Has there ever been a wider chasm than the one between Secretariat and a $1,000 yearling purchase?

“It was surreal,” Whitman said. “At the top of the stretch I kept thinking here they come, here they come. I was waiting for him to get tired as they got closer down the lane. Then I started thinking that maybe, just maybe, he again would be able to hold them off like he had done in the past. Then it hit me. There was no way they were going to catch him. As they came to the wire we were all screaming and jumping up and down. I was in shock and started crying. And then I couldn’t stop shaking. It was all so overwhelming and emotional because I couldn’t believe what had just happened. I have never been able to get a break and the fairy tales always seemed to come true for other people, but not for us.”

Later that evening Whitman said, “I still can’t stop shaking. It hasn’t totally sunk in yet that I actually bought and sold a Kentucky Derby winner. I’m still trying to comprehend how this little colt won the Kentucky Derby, because I know what an accomplishment this is and all the odds this colt beat to even get there. He’s just an amazing, courageous horse. It was so special having my two daughters with me. They are my pride and joy. For Jose and me this is a dream come true. He called me after the race and thanked me again for picking out and buying the horse and consigning him to the 2-year-old sale. It was an incredible moment for everyone involved.

“This year has been hard on us and this definitely was a much-needed positive in our lives and I hope will be the turning point I needed in my business and my life. After the Derby we went out to eat and celebrate with some close friends and it was such a happy night that we needed so badly. It’s been particularly tough on my daughters with their father leaving and the circumstances surrounding it.”

But in the horse business, rejoicing is short-lived and one must quickly return to reality. The next morning it was business as usual for Whitman. She was up early and went out to the training center to check on her horses that that would be heading out to the Fasig-Tipton 2-year-old sale at Timonium the following day.

She also keeps several yearlings and a few mares at her house. One of the mares recently foaled and another is due soon so she has to keep a close eye on them.

“There are no holidays, sick days, or vacations with horses,” she said. “They always come first.”

So now the story of Bob Baffert’s seventh Kentucky Derby victory is complete. Cinderella had “met” Prince Charming and felt the exhilaration of attending the king’s ball. Although her real life has been hard this past year, because of a little $1,000 horse that no one but her wanted, she and her daughters can live happily ever after.

Photos courtesy of Louisville Courier Journal, Gail Rice, Benoit Photos, WDRB


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