LOUISVILLE, Ky. – On another first Saturday in May, the beauty of America’s oldest sport struggled with its low profile when a colt named Medina Spirit elegantly held a determined challenge from Mandaloun.
They moved in tandem like four-legged ballet dancers – effortless, beautiful. No one here who loved thoroughbred racing could catch their breath after Medina Spirit crossed the finish line half a length ahead of runner-up and comfortably ahead of Hot Rod Charlie and favorite Essential Quality before the race.
With the stallion’s victory, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won his seventh Kentucky Derby, surpassing Ben Jones, who collected his rose covers in 1938, 1941, 1944, 1948, 1949 and 1952.
It was an asterisked victory, as successes in horse racing so often do.
A lot of the news that Baffert has been doing lately was not good. Arkansas regulators last month upheld the ruling that a banned substance had been found on two of Baffert’s horses, but decided to reduce his suspension to a fine.
Baffert is the dominant competitor and most surveyed competitor in his sport, which recently led to the passage of federal laws that the United States Anti-Doping Agency – the organization that enforces law and order in Olympic sports – put in place to monitor horse races would.
“I’m the happiest man in the world,” said Baffert shortly after his record victory. “I’m so spoiled to bring these high-performance horses here and this little horse has a big heart.”
The bittersweet aftertaste of Medina Spirit’s victory threatened to overshadow the performance of the stallion rider Johnny Velazquez. At 49 years of age, the Hall of Fame jockey hadn’t exactly been pronounced dead, but it was believed to be the shadows in his career twilight.
This was his fourth Derby triumph, and on a calendar turned upside down by a coronavirus pandemic that has hit us all, his second in nine months.
The pandemic forced the organizers to do that 2020 derby empty seats last September, but now America’s biggest horse race was back.
Type of. The mint juleps flowed as sumptuous hats and pocket squares swayed through the stands and clubhouse of this famous racetrack. But there was less of all: Churchill Downs was a third of its 150,000 capacity, especially earlier in the day when it felt like a club after the last call.
Here, too, there were some new faces who promised to give horse racing new, cheaper attention. Kendrick Carmouche, in his first Kentucky derby At 37, he tried to become the first black jockey in 119 years to win the race. His appearance on a long shot called Bourbonic contributed to the long history of black drivers in the sport: Oliver Lewis won the first derby in 1875, and 15 of the first 28 editions of the race were won by black jockeys, most recently by Jimmy Winkfield in 1902.
Carmouche and Bourbonic took 13th place.
The previously undefeated Essential Quality promised excitement and a new lens for sport.
Until he didn’t.
Essential Quality, a gray son of Tapit, came here with a gaudy résumé as a reigning 2 year old champion and owner of a 5v5 record. His coach Brad Cox is from Louisville and has had the best year of his career. He has won four Breeders’ Cup races and has been named the 2020 championship coach.
The Essential Quality driver, Luis Saez, is one of the best young jockeys in the country and was looking for redemption after leading a colt called Maximum Security over the finish line first in 2019. only to be disqualified for nearly knocking over a competing horse and slow down the swing of others.
In the following year, Maximum Security’s coach, Jason Servis, would be under more than 27 people charged by federal prosecutors in a far-reaching system to secretly doping horses and cheating the betting public.
However, when it came to controversy, doping and disqualifications ended a distant second after Questions about the owner of Essential Quality, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.
Sheikh Mohammed has spent large sums in central Kentucky building a breeding and racing operation but has not won the derby in 11 previous starts. While horse racing wanted to talk about his money and stamina, human rights lawyers at home and abroad focused on the sheikh’s role in the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, one of his daughters.
Sheikha Latifa has been seen in numerous videos saying that her father is imprisoning her in Dubai and that she fears for her life. “He only cares about himself and his ego,” she said.
The United Nations has requested that Sheikh Mohammed provide evidence that his daughter is still alive, and a group from the University of Louisville Law School filed a complaint with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission asking them to identify the Sheikh and the principal To exclude quality from the derby.
The lawsuit was quickly dismissed on a myriad of grounds, seen on a pastoral drive through the heart of bluegrass territory, where the sheikh gathered farms and swift horses.
Essential Quality finished fourth one game. Saez didn’t get his redemption. Cox had the double heartache of seeing his other horse, Mandaloun, only briefly appear.
And at the end of the day, a sport that both pierces and repels was doing both again.
“It never gets old,” said Velazquez, rightly one of the happiest men in horse racing after his victory.
Yes, too often.