LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On one other first Saturday in May, the great thing about America’s oldest sport battled neck and neck down the stretch with its unseemliness as a colt named Medina Spirit elegantly held off a decided problem from Mandaloun.

They moved in tandem like four-legged ballet dancers — effortlessly, superbly. No one right here who cherished thoroughbred racing might catch their breath after Medina Spirit crossed the end line half a size forward of the second-place horse and comfortably forward of Hot Rod Charlie and pre-race favourite Essential Quality.

With the colt’s victory, the Hall of Fame coach Bob Baffert received his seventh Kentucky Derby, surpassing Ben Jones, who collected his blankets of roses in 1938, 1941, 1944, 1948, 1949 and 1952.

It was a victory that got here with an asterisk, as achievements in horse racing so typically do.

Much of the information Baffert has made currently has not been good. Regulators in Arkansas final month upheld a ruling {that a} banned substance had been present in two of Baffert’s horses however determined to cut back his suspension to a tremendous.

Baffert is the dominant competitor and the most questioned in his sport, which lately prompted the passage of federal laws that might herald the United States Anti-Doping Agency — the group that enforces legislation and order in Olympic sports activities — to observe horse racing.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Baffert stated moments after his record-breaking victory. “I’m so spoiled bringing these heavy-duty horses in here, and this little horse has a big heart.”

The bittersweet aftertaste of Medina Spirit’s victory threatened to eclipse the achievement of the colt’s rider, Johnny Velazquez. At 49, the Hall of Fame jockey had not precisely been left for lifeless however was regarded as pulling the shades on the twilight of his profession.


This was his fourth Derby triumph and, in a calendar turned topsy-turvy by a coronavirus pandemic that has left all of us battered, his second in 9 months.

The pandemic compelled organizers to run the 2020 Derby final September in entrance of empty seats, however now America’s biggest horse race was again.

Sort of. The mint juleps flowed whereas exuberant hats and pocket squares bobbed by the grandstand and clubhouse of this famed racetrack. But there have been fewer of all of them: Churchill Downs was a 3rd of its 150,000 particular person capability, particularly earlier in the day, when it felt like a membership well past final name.

There have been some new faces right here, too, that promised to convey new, extra favorable consideration to horse racing. Kendrick Carmouche, in his first Kentucky Derby at 37, was making an attempt to turn out to be the first Black jockey in 119 years to win the race. His look on a protracted shot named Bourbonic added to Black riders’ lengthy historical past in the sport: Oliver Lewis received the first Derby in 1875, and 15 of the first 28 editions of the race have been received by Black jockeys, most lately Jimmy Winkfield in 1902.

Carmouche and Bourbonic completed 13th.

The beforehand undefeated Essential Quality, promised pleasure and a brand new lens to have a look at the sport.

Until he didn’t.

A grey son of Tapit, Essential Quality got here right here with a gaudy résumé, as the reigning 2-year-old champion and the proprietor of a 5-for-5 file. His coach, Brad Cox, is a Louisville native coming off the best yr of his profession, having received 4 Breeders’ Cup races and been named the champion coach for 2020.

Essential Quality’s rider, Luis Saez, is one in all the high younger jockeys in the nation and was on the lookout for redemption after memorably guiding a colt named Maximum Security first throughout the end line right here in the 2019, only to be disqualified for almost knocking over a rival horse and slowing the momentum of others.

The following yr Maximum Security’s coach, Jason Servis, could be amongst greater than 27 people charged by federal prosecutors in a wide-ranging scheme to secretly dope horses and cheat the betting public.

When it got here to controversy, although, doping and disqualifications completed a distant second to the questions surrounding Essential Quality’s owner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed has spent huge sums in Central Kentucky to construct a breeding and racing operation, however had did not win the Derby in 11 earlier begins. While horse racing individuals needed to speak about his cash and perseverance, human rights attorneys right here and overseas have been centered on the sheikh’s position in the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, one in all his daughters.

Sheikha Latifa has been seen in quite a few movies saying that her father is holding her captive in Dubai and that she fears for her life. “He only cares about himself and his ego,” she stated.

The United Nations has demanded that the Sheikh Mohammed produce proof that his daughter continues to be alive, and a bunch from the University of Louisville legislation faculty filed a grievance with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking it to bar the sheikh and Essential Quality from the Derby.

The declare was rapidly dismissed for innumerable causes that might be seen on a pastoral drive by the coronary heart of the bluegrass territory the place the sheikh has collected farms and quick horses.

Essential Quality completed a sport fourth. Saez didn’t get his redemption. Cox had the double heartbreak of watching his different horse Mandaloun come up simply brief.

And, at the finish of the day, a sport that each transfixes and repels did each once more.

“This never gets old,” stated Velazquez, rightfully one in all the happiest males in horse racing after his victory.

Yeah, properly, too typically it does.

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