If you visited Bob Baffert early in Derby week, he wasn’t overly enthused with his only horse in the race.
Maybe overly enthused isn’t the best description, cautiously optimistic could’ve been the right emotional level.
That was Medina Spirit, which was considered the third best of his possible runners in the Kentucky Derby.
Walking away from an early morning visit with Baffert, you’d be left with a couple of questions about the conversation.
Does Baffert believe his horse could be a challenger in the race? Was Baffert not pumping his horse up too much because he was trying to hide how good it could be?
“I’ve won it with good horses, I’ve won it with the best horses,” Baffert said during the week. “I don’t feel I have the best horse in this race.”
Well, the horse, Medina Spirit, proved to be the best after a strong and tough stretch drive pushed him to winner’s circle early Saturday evening for the 147th Kentucky Derby.
The victory was historical for Baffert. He became the winningest trainer in Kentucky Derby history with seven.
That’s a really big number in a race that is extremely difficult to win once or twice, much less seven times.
Baffert broke a tie with Ben Jones for most Derby victories with Saturday’s triumph. His previous wins came with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (2015), Triple Crown winner Justify (2018) and Authentic (2020).
“This is the only Derby I came into saying I just don’t know,” an very happy Baffert said. “He’s solid, he’s good, he’ tough. But everything is going to have to go really well to get it done. He’s going to have to have the trip, we knew we had the jockey to get away from there. I love Johnny. I love guys that can get a horse away from there.”
John Velazquez was the jockey up on Medina Spirit, and he took the horse right to the front, which was the exact way Baffert wanted him to ride.
In the aftermath of the victory, which seemed to shock Baffert, he looked back at a Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasmine that he trained in 2017.
“She was last down the backside, Bode (his son) was saying ‘we’re going to eat at the sports bar tonight because she’s not running well’ and she wins. We were elated,” Baffert said.
“The wins like this, we’re in the Derby, we might have a chance. I try to temper myself, I don’t want to get too excited, I don’t want you to get too excited (he motioned to owner Amr Zedan).
“Let’s go in there, maybe we have a chance, maybe we don’t. If we pull it off, then we say holy crap what did we just do? But that’s what the Derby is all about. The night before every trainer, every owner thinks they’re going to win the Kentucky Derby. It sounds like a crowded winner’s circle. But, then, when the gates come open, the whole scenario changes. He came through for us, he showed me today ‘hey Bob, I’m a lot better than you think I am.’ He’s a helluva lot better than I thought he was. He’s a good horse, he’s tough.”
Baffert certainly had winning karma going Saturday. He had wins in the American Turf with Du Jour, which his wife Jill is a part owner, and
Gamine won Grade I Derby City Distaff earlier in the day. With that win, Baffert passed Wayne Lukas with his 220th career Grade I win (since 1976) — the most in Thoroughbred U.S. racing history.
Now, the question for Baffert becomes, how many more Derby wins can he put up?
“I don’t think about the records,” Baffert said. “I just want to be back with a horse that’s competitive. The Kentucky Derby, there’s other races, but the Derby is “the” race. Just to come here with a competitive horse, I thought we had a competitive horse.
“I don’t want to come here with an 80-1 shot. It’s not really fun. And so I don’t know — I don’t know. I didn’t think I could hit five, two Triple Crowns.
“I may never have another horse good enough for this, but we’re not going to give up. And as long as the clients still want me as long as they still want us, we’re going to stay in there fighting away trying to win these things.”
Now, Baffert can just keep building his legacy as the best trainer in horse racing history.