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Three takeaways from Medina Spirit’s victory in the Kentucky Derby

John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit, right, leads Florent Geroux on Mandaloun, Flavien Prat riding Hot Rod Charlie and Luis Saez on Essential Quality to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit, right, leads Florent Geroux on Mandaloun, Flavien Prat riding Hot Rod Charlie and Luis Saez on Essential Quality to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson) (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Medina Spirit led the Kentucky Derby from wire to wire Saturday, giving trainer Bob Baffert his seventh Derby win and jockey John Velazquez his fourth. Here are three takeaways from an exciting race that confounded expectations:

Never count out Bob Baffert in a Derby

Baffert rode a string of bad luck through Derby prep season. Would-be favorite Life is Good fell off the trail because of an ankle chip. Concert Tour came up inexplicably empty in the Arkansas Derby.

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Only Medina Spirit remained standing, but Baffert seemed to think he was longer on fighting spirit than talent. In the Santa Anita Derby, the “little horse” never made much of a move on the winner, Rock Your World. If not for his famous trainer, he would have been an afterthought in Louisville.

As NBC analyst Randy Moss pointed out just before the Derby, however, Medina Spirit had never been passed. If he could get to the lead, he just might hold it.

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That was exactly what happened as Medina Spirit broke sharply and Velazquez steered him to the front. Talented Mandaloun ran with him. Prerace favorite Essential Quality and third choice Hot Rod Charlie tried to come up on his outside. Medina Spirit did not falter.

“I knew he was training well, but I’m really, really surprised,” Baffert said afterward. “If you have him on the lead, he’ll fight. … That little horse has got such a big heart.”

For a second straight year, Baffert upset the apple cart in America’s most coveted race. In 2020, he trained Authentic to a stunning victory over Tiz the Law. This time, he won with a horse even he did not rate highly. The sport’s most famous trainer will bring his share of controversy as he chases his eighth Preakness victory; his medication violations from recent years guarantee that. But you can’t say Baffert only wins because he gets the best talent. He’s done it too many times with too many different kinds of horses.

We don’t have a superhorse in this year’s Triple Crown

The story of this race was a tough horse with an all-time great trainer and an all-time great tactician in the saddle, but no one, Baffert included, thinks Medina Spirit is the next Justify or American Pharoah. It’s conceivable the Derby champion won’t be favored in the Preakness depending on which other horses make the trip to Baltimore.

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The favorite, Essential Quality, jostled with second choice Rock Your World at the start, but he had an honest chance to catch Medina Spirit and couldn’t do it. Though he came in undefeated, with a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win on his resume, it was not uncommon to hear smart analysts describe him as a very good, not great horse. He seemed to confirm that in the Derby, giving his usual sturdy effort but failing to overcome a wide trip.

Those who saw greater upside in trainer Brad Cox’s other contender, Mandaloun, gained ammunition Saturday as he finished a close second. But he finished a baffling sixth in the Louisiana Derby, so who knows what he might do the next time out?

Many thought Hot Rod Charlie, coming off an exceptional performance in the Louisiana Derby, would be the horse to step forward. He ran well but not well enough for two-time Derby-winning trainer Doug O’Neill.

Rock Your World, who seemed to come in with the most potential for brilliance, could not overcome his early contact with Essential Quality. He needed to get to the lead and instead faded quickly.

In other words, this was not a race that clarified a whole lot about the 2021 3-year-old class. Don’t be surprised if we get a different winner in each Triple Crown race, just as we did in 2019 and 2020.

We seem headed for a more normal Triple Crown

The crowd at Churchill Downs was less than half what it would be at a normal Derby. Many patrons, though certainly not all, wore masks. It wasn’t as if the event was unmarked by COVID-19, but compared to 2020, when they ran the Derby on Labor Day weekend with no crowd, the spectacle felt downright comforting.

We got the hats and the crowded paddock as the 19 contenders paraded in. We got roars at appropriate moments of drama. We got the excitement of relatively untested 3-year-olds colliding at a moment when their destinies could go in any direction.

This felt like the first leg of the Triple Crown series.

We’ll see if the feeling holds in two weeks at Pimlico Race Course. The Preakness will feature a smaller crowd than the Derby, without the usual color provided by its InfieldFest. But at least the race will go off on its familiar date, with patrons on-hand and the tension of a possible Triple Crown quest. That will be a step forward from the eerie quiet that greeted Swiss Skydiver’s captivating upset of Authentic last October.

146TH PREAKNESS

Pimlico Race Course

May 15, 5:45 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

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