Kentucky Derby champion Medina Spirit could face significant competition from challengers familiar and fresh as he tries to follow up his surprise victory with a similar performance in the May 15 Preakness Stakes.
In the afterglow of his record seventh Derby win, trainer Bob Baffert said he underestimated Medina Spirit going into the first leg of the Triple Crown series. He knew the former $1,000 yearling would give a spirited effort; he just wasn't sure his colt's talent would match up to the best of this year's 3-year-old class.
As it turned out, Baffert and jockey John Velazquez concocted the perfect strategy, letting Medina Spirit run free to the lead and daring the rest of the field to pass him.
"Can he win the Triple Crown? I don't know. But he's the Derby winner, and that's all that matters," Baffert said Sunday morning outside his familiar Barn 33 at Churchill Downs. "I was coming in here, thinking, I wasn't sure; everything had to go perfect for him. We were going to go to the lead, and see what happened."
Medina Spirit came out of his career-best performance in good shape. "He wasn't as tired as I thought he might be," Baffert said. "A big race like that, but he handled it quite well."
The question going into the Preakness is how Medina Spirit might react if he faces a harder challenge out of the gate? In the Santa Anita Derby, he could not come from behind to pressure early leader and eventual winner Rock Your World. His consistency, on the other hand, is a given; he's never finished lower than second in six career races.
He could face an immediate rematch with Derby runner-up Mandaloun and prerace favorite Essential Quality, both trained by Brad Cox.
Mandaloun ran with Medina Spirit for much of Saturday's race and nearly beat him. With his performance, the powerfully built colt buried doubts inspired by his puzzling sixth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby.
Essential Quality, meanwhile, tried to make a push from the outside but did not have enough left in his tank after an early bump and a wide trip. He was undefeated going into the Derby.
Third-place Derby finisher Hot Rod Charlie will not run in the Preakness, trainer Doug O'Neill said. He's pointed toward the Belmont Stakes.
Trainer Todd Pletcher said none of his four Derby horses, led by ninth-place finisher Known Agenda, are headed for Baltimore, but Unbridled Honor, runner-up in the Lexington Stakes, is a possibility.
The most imposing fresh challenge to Medina Spirit could come from Baffert's own barn. Concert Tour was on track to be one of the favorites at Churchill Downs before he finished a disappointing third in the Arkansas Derby. Baffert was troubled enough by that performance to pull him out of Derby contention, but he said Concert Tour was training as well as any 3-year-old in the week before the Derby.
Another Cox trainee, Caddo River, is possible for the Preakness after he scratched out of the Derby field because of an infection. He finished second in the Arkansas Derby.
Japanese horse France Go De Ina, sixth-place finisher in the UAE Derby, is expected in the field.
The Reds earned an automatic berth in the Preakness with his victory in the Federico Tesio Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. He wasn't nominated for the Triple Crown series but could claim a supplemental entry as late as May 10. New York-based trainer John Kimmel said he wasn't sure if The Reds would be back at Pimlico for the Preakness.
Other possibilities included Crowded Trade, who finished third in a slow Wood Memorial for trainer Chad Brown, and Rombauer, who finished third in the Blue Grass Stakes.
Trainer Kenny McPeak, who won the Preakness last year, has not revealed his plan for King Fury, a popular longshot at the Derby before he was scratched because of a late-week fever.
Assuming Medina Spirit trains well over the next week, Baffert will shoot for his eighth Preakness win to go with those seven Derby victories. He and Velazquez (who's never won the Preakness) came up short last year as Derby champion Authentic lost an exciting duel with the filly Swiss Skydiver.
"I stand here in front of you guys, and you don't know how much I appreciate winning this, especially as you get older," Baffert said Sunday. "I'd love to have 10 in there if I could, but you know that won't happen. To have one who has a chance, to win it with him, it's a Cinderella story. He's just a blue-collar horse, just digging in. He reminded me of [1997 Derby and Preakness winner] Silver Charm. ... It's another Kentucky Derby dream that came true."