GEORGETOWN, Ky. — The rain pelted the headstone, leaving streaks on the black marble and mirroring the misty eyes of the 100 or so admirers who had come to say goodbye. None of them knew the deceased well. Many had seen him only on television.
They lifted plastic shot glasses filled with Kentucky bourbon to the gloomy heavens and murmured melancholy toasts to the departed, Medina Spirit.
The epitaph mostly kept to the facts — the names of his parents, his record and earnings as a racehorse, the names of some of the people he left behind. None of them were at the service. The colt’s trainer, Bob Baffert, however, sent roses.
Loving words were etched in the stone. So were thornier ones that have been litigated in the courts and on the muddy backstretches of social media.
Noble & Cherished Champion
2021 Kentucky Derby
No one at the Old Friends thoroughbred retirement farm was here to discuss the drug test Medina Spirit failed after the Kentucky Derby a year ago or the disqualification that erased his victory. Any talk of the ills of horse racing — doping scandals, the frequent and mysterious deaths of its athletes, waning interest in the sport — could wait for a less solemn day.
Instead, animal rights activists who want to ban thoroughbred racing stood shoulder to shoulder with horse lovers who have devoted their lives to the sport. Medina Spirit represented everything they admire about thoroughbreds — their beauty, strength and single-minded determination.
All he did was what he was supposed to do: run fast.
“I wanted to pay my respects because he was a beautiful athlete who did what he was programmed to do very well,” said Pamela Gentry, a Kentuckian now retired in Costa Rica. She mourns Medina Spirit, she said, but she wants the sport to go away.
“I feel bad because the humans around them let him down,” she said. “It makes me sad.”
Medina Spirit’s story has an almost Shakespearean arc, but it also befits the contemporary drama of the sport. He was fortune’s fool: born in obscurity in the paddock of a small-time breeder, auctioned off as a yearling for $1,000, sold again on the cheap, then entrusted to a snowy-haired trainer who led him to unexpected greatness but ultimately to infamy.
Just as abruptly as he had reached the top of the sport, the feisty colt collapsed during a workout at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. A thoroughbred typically lives 25 years. Medina Spirit was dead before he turned 4.
At first, it had seemed the little colt with the big heart wouldn’t last even that long.
A Faltering Start
On April 5, 2018, four years to the day before Medina Spirit’s farewell toast, Gail Rice was running errands when she heard a voice in her head: “Gail, go home.” After working with horses for decades, she had learned to listen to her instincts.
Rice, 60, is a backyard breeder, a title worn proudly by those who make racehorses without deep pockets, a manicured pasture or extra staff. She makes her living urging horses through their baby steps on their way to auction and eventually the racetrack.
She lived in a trailer on her son’s 10-acre farm in Anthony, Fla., a temporary refuge as she wound down her marriage. Rice had two mares on the property. One had recently dropped her foal, but the other, Mongolian Changa, was three weeks late.
As she turned into the driveway, Rice saw Mongolian Changa writhing in the dirt. Most mares drop their babies at night, for privacy, but this mare was straining to deliver in the early afternoon.
Rice hollered for help and Emily Rice, her daughter-in-law, came running.
“Emily, this baby is going to punch through the top if you don’t stretch this hole out so I can get the feet where they need to be,” Rice said.
Rice pulled and pushed on the foal’s forelegs like a crane operator working her gears until the legs were aimed for the exit. Her son Kevin heard the commotion, and soon there were four hands dragging this baby into the Florida sunshine.
The foal, who would become Medina Spirit, was all legs and as slippery as a seal.
For three hours, Rice hand-nursed the dark brown colt with the white star between his eyes. Within days, he was taking flight in the pasture.
Medina Spirit — at the time, he answered to Turbo or Changa Boy — did not have a particularly impressive pedigree. His dam, Mongolian Changa, had won a race and finished third in two others before she was retired at 2 because of an injury. His sire, Protonico, had been a solid racehorse, winning four stakes races and nearly $1 million in purses. Because Protonico was a first-time sire with modest bloodlines, it had cost Rice and her ex-husband, Wayne, only $10,000 to breed him to Mongolian Changa and one other mare.
It did not take long for Gail Rice to realize the offspring of these two horses was something special. The yearling colt wore out her pasture, sprinting from point to point as if he were being chased. At rest, he was laid-back, though he sometimes took playful nips at her.
“He was smooth like he was running on clouds, but he also had this bounce that showed he had power,” Rice said. “You looked in his eye, and you just knew you had a freaking racehorse.”
In January 2019, when Mongolian Changa’s son was 9 months, Rice took him to the auction ring. She could no longer handle him by herself, and money was tight.
“I was hoping to get $10,000 on his looks alone,” she said. “I would have loved to get $25,000. But no one wanted a Protonico.”
‘He Was All Business’
The horse bearing sticker No. 448 on his hip entered the back ring of the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company and caught the eye of Christy Whitman.
Whitman, 38, is a pinhooker, in racing parlance, meaning she buys inexpensive horses as yearlings, then trains them for resale at 2-year-old sales to owners who will race them.
“I love what I do,” said Whitman, who grew up in Florida horse country and rode ponies as soon as she could walk. “It is demanding. But horses are my gift, and if I wasn’t doing this, I’d be giving away my gift.”
Whitman had never heard of Protonico, the sire of the little horse with the star between his eyes. She looked up his race record and saw promise.
One of Whitman’s exercise riders had asked her to buy an inexpensive weanling for him in lieu of what she owed him. She was surprised when she bid $1,000 on No. 448 and no one countered. Rice thanked Whitman for buying him.
“He’ll be back in the sales ring soon,” Whitman told her.
Training young horses requires long days and patience. Whitman has 50 in her care, mostly for other clients. She teaches the horses how to accept a saddle, how to bear the weight of a rider, how to gallop.
The Protonico colt took to his lessons quickly.
“He was easy to work with and had a great mind and beautiful stride,” Whitman said. “Horses are like kids, and each have their own personality. Some can’t handle the stress. The colt wasn’t nervous or stupid. He was all business.”
She tried to get him into the spring sales, but the catalogs did not have room for the son of an unheralded first-time stallion who had been sold for the price of a mattress. She had to wait for the less prestigious summer auctions.
On July 16, 2020, on the final day of the 2-year-old sale in Ocala, the Protonico colt finally got to show his stuff.
Whitman told Jose Gallego, the exercise rider for whom she had bought the colt, that he had three-eighths of a mile to sell his horse. Both horse and rider responded, slingshotting around the racetrack in 33 seconds — among the fastest times turned in.
At least one horseman was paying attention: Amr Zedan, chairman of the Zedan Group, a Saudi Engineering conglomerate.
He knew Protonico was a good racehorse. He was also a friend of Protonico’s owner, Oussama Aboughazale, who has a breeding operation in Kentucky. Zedan told his advisers to take a good look at the colt.
Once again, the bidding was tepid. Zedan bought the horse for $35,000 and named him Medina Spirit, after his hometown in Saudi Arabia. Then he sent him to Bob Baffert.
‘He Could Be a Good One’
Baffert is the best known, most decorated and most controversial horseman of his generation.
Some of the richest people in the world send him their horses in hopes he will make them champions and premier stud horses. The staff of 80 at his three Southern California barns makes sure these animals are treated like the elite athletes they are.
The feed is top grade, the veterinary care extensive and the training regimen demanding. Baffert’s horses have won the Kentucky Derby six times and the Triple Crown twice. But horses in his stable have failed 30 drug tests over four decades, tainting his legacy in the sport.
No one expected Medina Spirit to become a champion. He landed in Baffert’s second-string barn, at Los Alamitos Race Course in Orange County, Calif.
Beginning that August, Medina Spirit had a timed workout every six or seven days — nine in all — and each one was better than the last. Mike Marlow, who runs Baffert’s Los Alamitos barn, let the boss know he had a potential Derby horse.
Baffert trusted his judgment.
“He doesn’t really pay attention to what we gave for him or anything like that,” Baffert would say of Marlow on Kentucky Derby day. “He’ll be frank with me, say, ‘I don’t know about this one.’ So when he tells me he could be a good one, he made the list.”
In December, Medina Spirit won his debut race at Los Alamitos by three lengths. The next month, the colt nearly beat Baffert’s best 3-year-old, Life Is Good, at Santa Anita Park, but came up three-quarters of a length short.
Medina Spirit put it all together in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes a month later, leading every step of the race and holding off late charges by highly regarded Hot Rod Charlie and Roman Centurion to win by a neck.
In Florida, Gail Rice and Christy Whitman were keeping an eye on the colt they brought up, tracking his workouts online and watching his races for evidence that he was as good as they believed.
“He blew their doors off,” Rice recalled telling her daughter. “Do you think we are going to the Derby?”
By the first Saturday in May, Medina Spirit was the star of the Baffert barn by default. Life Is Good was injured. Baffert’s other top horse, Concert Tour, was left in California after he ran poorly in the Arkansas Derby. Still, no one saw Medina Spirit as a serious threat. He had been beaten badly in his previous two races, losing to Life Is Good by eight lengths in the San Felipe Stakes and to Rock Your World by four and a quarter in the Santa Anita Derby.
Baffert was subdued about the colt’s chances in the Derby. “Maybe he’ll get a piece of it,” he said.
Four-Legged Ballet Dancers
Rice, who had been to the Derby only once, wasn’t going to miss this one. As the horses started loading into the starting gate, she climbed atop her seat and aimed her phone at the big screen to film the race.
In Florida, Whitman watched at a party with her daughters, Erica, 14, and Ashley, 13. It had been a tough year — she had separated from her husband — and Whitman believed they all needed an outing.
When the gates opened at Churchill Downs, Medina Spirit went off like a rocket, leading 18 other horses around the first turn. John Velazquez, the colt’s rider, knew Medina Spirit preferred running in front and was a fighter. His strategy was to take the lead and see how long they could hold it.
“He’s in front,” a breathless Rice said as Velazquez and Medina Spirit rolled into the backstretch.
“He’s still in front,” she screamed as the colt hit the mile marker.
But soon a colt named Mandaloun was on Medina Spirit’s hip, then at his neck, and finally, eye to eye with him. They moved in tandem like four-legged ballet dancers — effortlessly, beautifully — down the stretch.
Medina Spirit did not fold. He separated himself from Mandaloun by a foot, then another, and another. He crossed the finish line a half-length ahead of his rival.
In Florida, Whitman was out of breath. For the entire stretch, she muttered the mantra: “He’s going to hold on. He’s going to hold on.” When he did, she pulled her daughters into a hug.
After wrapping her arms around anyone she could at Churchill Downs, Rice made her way to the winner’s circle. No one knew the woman in the pink sweater who was kissing Medina Spirit on the face. Rice had never met Zedan or Baffert.
“I was going to hug my horse in the winner’s circle of the Kentucky Derby,” she said.
The next morning, she met Baffert at his barn. She was thrilled when she called out to Medina Spirit and he poked his head out of his stall as if he recognized the voice of an old friend.
A Positive Drug Test
This story should end here. But in horse racing, few stories end so neatly.
A week after the Derby, Baffert called a news conference to announce that Medina Spirit had tested positive for betamethasone, a corticosteroid injected into joints to reduce pain and swelling. He denied doping the horse.
“There’s problems in racing,” he said. “But it’s not Bob Baffert.”
But it was the fifth positive test in a Baffert horse in 14 months. Churchill Downs has now barred him. A hearing officer in New York has recommended that he be kept away from the state’s top tracks for two years. Baffert will not have horses in Triple Crown races this year.
Rice was at home in Florida when the news of the positive test broke. A camera crew was there to do a story on the backyard breeder who had won the Derby and would soon try to capture the second leg of the Triple Crown at the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore.
“I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t now,” Rice said. “He won the Kentucky Derby because he was the best horse that day.”
For Whitman, the positive drug test confirmed her fear that Medina Spirit’s Derby victory was too good to be true.
“It was my reality check,” she said. “There goes my fairy tale out the window. As much as I’d like to say that it will happen again, realistically that was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. It’s not guaranteed I’ll have another Derby horse, let alone one that wins it.”
Medina Spirit competed in the Preakness under a cloud, undergoing extra drug testing while Baffert remained in California. The colt finished third, then had a three-month vacation before winning stakes races at Del Mar and Santa Anita and finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“He was maturing and starting to hit his peak,” Whitman said.
On the morning of Dec. 6, Medina Spirit stepped onto the racetrack at Santa Anita with his regular exercise rider, Juan Ochoa, aboard. The colt had come out of the Breeders’ Cup in excellent shape, and his morning turns around the track were eye-catching. Baffert was prepping Medina Spirit for the $20 million Saudi Cup in February.
Ochoa broke him off for a five-furlong breeze. For three-quarters of it, Medina Spirit looked like the blossoming older horse he was becoming.
But as they were finishing, Medina Spirit was straining. When Ochoa pulled him up, the colt’s legs got rigid. He took a few strides and collapsed.
Whitman was in her barn with her horse when she received a text: “medina spirit just died in a workout.”
Whitman scrolled her phone to see if it was true. It was. She was numb and needed to steady herself. It was another blow to Medina Spirit’s legacy, and to her fairy tale.
“But the saddest part is that he was just starting to really mature,” Whitman said. “We’ll never know just how good he was going to be.”
This year, after a necropsy, veterinarians and forensic experts at the University of California, Davis, said the colt might have died of a heart attack. Medina Spirit had swollen lungs, foam in his windpipe and an enlarged spleen. Those conditions are “compatible with, but not specific for, a cardiac cause of death,” the experts said.
Hair, blood and urine samples showed no evidence of doping.
A ‘Living History Museum’
Neither Rice nor Whitman attended the memorial for Medina Spirit at the Old Friends retirement farm. They chose to stay home with the beautiful athletes that have brought them so much joy.
“I get to see their faces after their first breeze,” Rice said, “and you can see it in their eyes: ‘What did I just do? It was so fun.’ That’s the best.”
At Old Friends, more than 100 horses, many of them champions, are living out their final days on 236 acres. Departed champions are here too. Medina Spirit is interred alongside two other Derby winners, War Emblem and Charismatic.
The farm, which bills itself as “horse racing’s living history museum,” was founded and is run by Michael Blowen. It is staffed by an army of volunteers, horse lovers all. Blowen arranged for the burial of Medina Spirit’s ashes and gave his eulogy.
A former Boston Globe film critic, Blowen has long loved thoroughbreds. He understands better than most the conflicts in horse racing. He is enthralled with thoroughbreds in motion, but he has had to help rescue too many of them from abuse or kill pens.
Blowen counts Baffert, a frequent visitor to Old Friends, as a friend and supporter. Baffert’s first Derby winner, Silver Charm, calls this home. Blowen also knows that rules are rules and that drugs, therapeutic and otherwise, are dragging down the sport.
Like many horse people, he struggles to make sense of this whole sad story.
“If Medina Spirit has one great legacy, he showed everybody in racing that they can’t possibly fix it,” Blowen said. “Look, all I’ve got to say is that horse racing must be the greatest sport that was ever invented, because it survives itself.”