The ‘Spirit’ of the Times

Medina Spirit, through no fault of his own, has become a polarizing figure, and there is a good chance he will be deprived of any awards this year, although some will still make a case for him for 3-year-old champion. This is my take on the horse and the controversy that surrounds him.~ Steve Haskin

The ‘Spirit’ of the Times

By Steve Haskin

This column is not just about Medina Spirit. It is also about Thoroughbred racing, its highs and lows, its complexities, and how the sport and the Thoroughbred can trigger a wide range of emotions.

Aristotle named 14 distinct emotional expressions: fear, confidence, anger, friendship, calm, enmity, shame, shamelessness, pity, kindness, envy, indignation, emulation, and contempt.

Do we pity Medina Spirit and the lack of respect he’s been given since his drug positive? Do we wish more horses could emulate the courage and tenacity he has demonstrated in his races? Do we have anger, indignation, and enmity at what transpired following the Kentucky Derby and how it tarnished what was one of the great feel-good stories of the year that was too short-lived to fully enjoy and appreciate? Do we fear what the longe-range ramifications will be? Do we feel the positive test and its ensuing legal battles and banishments of Bob Baffert shamed the sport? Do we feel Baffert has been shameless having had several positives over the past year? Is the resentment of Baffert by a number of fans and rival trainers based more on contempt or envy? Do we still have confidence in Medina Spirit after he ran big races despite being under microscopic scrutiny and believe he is one of the best horses in the country? Will kindness and calm eventually prevail and we can all one day acknowledge the talent and courage of this obscurely bred, rags to riches colt?

Medina Spirit has brought out another emotional expression that escaped Aristotle – frustration. The roses that were draped across his withers on the first Saturday in May have long since wilted, and after six months we still don’t know whether they were rightfully his in the first place. Whether he gets to keep them or they are taken away from him, there will be debate, and in today’s society, the definition of debate has changed from “a discussion involving opposing viewpoints” to “an all-out verbal assault.”

In horse racing, debate has gone from “They were both great horses, but I still believe Damascus was better than Dr. Fager” to “If you believe Rachel Alexandra was better than Zenyatta then you really are a moron.”

Whatever is decided in the courts and commission hearings, there will be outrage. Some of the outrage will involve Baffert and some of it will involve Medina Spirit. In the case of Baffert, he has built up an amazing resume over the years and certainly does not want that and his reputation tarnished. In the case of Medina Spirit, no one will feel good about the horse being disqualified because he did something wrong and deserved to be, but many people will feel badly for the horse for running so gamely and having his name and his accomplishment ripped out of the history books.

Looking at that realistically, this isn’t Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa having to live with becoming pariahs and being disgraced. This is an athlete who could not care in the slightest if he is stripped of his Derby victory. If a horse can somehow comprehend the exultation around him after winning the Derby and feels proud of himself, then that is Medina Spirit’s trophy. The morning after the Derby, while all the barn workers were still rejoicing in his victory, his only moment of joy came when his groom brought his feed tub into his stall. When he was drawing off from the top older horses in California in the Awesome Again Stakes or chasing Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and finishing ahead of his fellow 3-year-olds he was totally oblivious to the turmoil that has surrounded him for months.

So why will I, a hardened veteran writer of some 45 years, feel badly for Medina Spirit if he loses his Derby victory over a dab of skin ointment that likely had zero effect on his performance? Because like many horse lovers I have a tendency to anthropomorphize when it comes to our equine heroes, or even with old claimers who find a new home after their racing career. Why else would I feel badly for Smarty Jones after the Belmont Stakes and Zenyatta after the Breeders’ Cup Classic? Perhaps it is because I have heard so many instances of horses sulking after they lost or learning about Kelso and John Henry having to be physically restrained by their jockey from going into the winner’s circle following a narrow defeat. Why do horses often respond to the atmosphere of their barn? Why do they stop winning when there is friction and chaos in the barn? I don’t know, but it happens.

Also, the record books have chronicled racing for hundreds of years and is like our bible in that it preserves the sport’s history for future generations. I was here to see Medina Spirit win the Kentucky Derby. I got to write about it and tell the story of the horse and the people behind him; just hard-working everyday people who eke out a living doing what they love, which is being around horses, whether it’s breeding them, buying them, selling them or caring for them. I want their feel-good story and the story of Medina Spirit to be told because it deserves to be told and will make others in the future feel good.

For those who have forgotten or are unaware of Medina Spirit’s back story, please go back to my Derby recap about two women, one who was going through a divorce and had to sell Medina Spirit for $1,000 and one, recently divorced, who saw something in him and bought him for $1,000 for her exercise rider to pinhook. Her bid was the only one on the colt.

Because of the cloud that still hangs over the Derby, with no ruling yet on whether Medina Spirit will keep his victory, there is uncertainly surrounding the colt’s future status. As a result, he was not among the six nominees for the Vox Populi Award for most popular horse. If there is a horse this year who under normal circumstances should be seriously considered for most popular horse it is Medina Spirit. There is also a good chance this unfortunate situation will be held against the horse when it comes time to vote for 3-year-old champion. So, yes, I will feel badly for the horse for all the reasons mentioned earlier, and feel badly for the people in whose hands he passed through on his way to Kentucky Derby glory.

History may forget about Medina Spirit and what he accomplished on the first Saturday in May, and remember him only for another reason, but for anyone who admires the courage of the Thoroughbred, they won’t forget the stretch run of the 2021 Run for the Roses when an unfashionably bred colt who sold for the price of a cheap laptop computer refused to let regally bred horses owned and bred by the powerful Godolphin and Juddmonte operations get by him. No matter what the Kentucky Racing Commission ultimately decides, no one ever can take that away from him.

Photo courtesy of Jerry Jackson Baltimore Sun


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