Medina Spirit checking out the foliage (Gail Rice photo)
Medina Spirit with dam Mongolian Changa, and in the background, Scribbling Sarah with her Upstart colt who is now debut winner Uphold the Law (Gail Rice photo)
A newborn who needed help, a $1,000 yearling whose small breeder had to sell, a cheap recruit for a hardscrabble talent scout, a juvenile purchase inspired by friendship – Medina Spirit’s story is ready-made for cinema.
And that’s even before his improbable rise for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Outlasting his higher-profile stablemates Life Is Good
and Concert Tour
on the trail, Medina Spirit is Baffert’s last remaining hope for a record-breaking seventh Kentucky Derby (G1) win in 2021.
Medina Spirit was bred in Florida by Gail Rice, whose tiny broodmare band varies from one to four at a given time, including partnerships. His dam, Mongolian Changa, was a $9,000 yearling purchase by Gail’s former husband, trainer Wayne Rice.
Married into a well-known family of horsemen, Gail was the sister-in-law of trainer Linda Rice and Bryan Rice, who developed champion Storm the Court
at his Woodside Ranch. Gail’s children have followed suit. Sons Kevin and Adam are trainers, and daughter Taylor had a successful stint as a jockey, even becoming a finalist for an Eclipse Award as an apprentice. Taylor is married to Eclipse Award-winning rider Jose Ortiz, who’s aboard Dynamic One in the Derby.
Mongolian Changa won one of six starts, all as a juvenile, and placed twice in maidens at the boutique Keeneland meet. Although she had fine ancestry slightly further back
, up front her pedigree was not fashionable. When Mongolian Changa had to be retired due to a tendon injury, Wayne gave her to Gail who believed she had potential as a broodmare.
“She was big and beautiful,” Gail said. “The Rices taught us how to choose athletes.”
For her first suitor, Rice chose a new stallion who matched up with Mongolian Changa well – Protonico. Although a son of Giant’s Causeway with a deep pedigree, he was not the type to excite the market.
Rice pursued a similar freshman strategy with another mare, Scribbling Sarah. Sporting a broadly similar profile as inexpensive, but with solid underpinnings, Scribbling Sarah was bred to blueblood Mr Speaker in 2016 and Upstart in 2017, both in their respective first seasons at stud.
Scribbling Sarah delivered her Upstart colt March 14, 2018. It was providential that the more experienced mare had her foal before Mongolian Changa did.
New mom Mongolian Changa, already overdue, wasn’t preparing milk in time for her baby. As first reported by the Paulick Report’s Chelsea Hackbarth, Rice had the presence of mind to save and freeze extra milk produced by Scribbling Sarah, including the colostrum that’s essential for newborns.
When an unprepared Mongolian Changa suddenly had her foal on April 5, Rice swung into action. She gave the colt the colostrum from Scribbling Sarah, rich in the nutrients and antibodies that he needed, as soon as possible, to survive and thrive. Thankfully, the delivery prompted Mongolian Changa’s body to feed her baby, and soon the colt was imbibing his own dam’s milk.
The colt was a “standout,” Rice recalled. “He would give you that look, just the way he moved across the field.”
Mongolian Changa was a good first-time mom, even when her foal wanted to use her as a playset.
“She was tolerant – let him jump up on her neck.”
The colt also had an independent streak, wandering outside the typical comfort zone. But both mother and son were laid-back enough to feel secure when separated by a distance.
“He would hunt after her when he needed a drink,” Rice said, “but then he would go around to the other side of the fence. Most babies would be freaking out.”
The biggest foal of the group despite being the last born, the colt was already displaying a deeply competitive spirit.
“He was a little pushy in the field with his friends. He respected everybody,” Rice added, “but he played hard.”
Once Rice’s circumstances dictated that she could keep only one horse, Scribbling Sarah had to be the one. Just a few months earlier, her newly-turned yearling filly by Mr Speaker sold for $65,000 at OBS January 2018. We know her now as Speech, the track record-setting winner of the 2020 Ashland (G1).
Mongolian Changa was given to a new home, and her Protonico colt was entered in OBS January 2019. Like Scribbling Sarah’s filly the year before, the barely-turned yearling colt was consigned by Francis and Barbara Vanlangendonck’s Summerfield. But unlike her, he was virtually unwanted. The first foal of a nondescript mare from a family that wasn’t current, sired by a freshman without commercial appeal, he had little chance of getting noticed.
In the back ring at OBS, however, Christy Whitman was looking for bargain-basement opportunities. The proprietor of Whitman Sales has a knack for finding those overlooked youngsters and training them for resale. Among her notable pupils is Wells Bayou, an $18,000 yearling buy who appreciated into a $105,000 juvenile and eventually the 2020 Louisiana Derby (G2) winner.
“I buy pretty much all my horses out of the back ring, whether it’s OBS, Keeneland or Fasig Tipton,” Whitman said. “I don’t have enough money to buy the ones I pick out at the barns, and in the meantime I would have ended up missing a good one like Medina Spirit or Wells Bayou. It’s not a system that works for everyone, but I know what I’m looking for and if I can afford them I buy the ones that have the attributes that I like.
“One of my breeze riders (Jose Gallego) had asked me to pick out and buy an inexpensive weanling for them. This colt came up and no one was even looking at him because of his page. I had never even heard of Protonico at the time - I had to look him up to see where the stallion even stood.
“But this colt had all the things I look for when selecting horses: well balanced, good walk, decently correct with a good hip and athletic build.”
The dark bay stood in the ring before an uninterested crowd. Whitman bid the bare minimum to start – $1,000 – and no one countered.
“I was the only one to bid on him, and I remember his owner/breeder coming over to thank me for buying him, and I told her the colt would show back up at a two-year-old sale.”
Whitman credited Gallego for doing “all the work” with the colt, who ended up validating her judgment about his potential.
“The colt was always easy to work with and had a great mind and beautiful stride. Because of his purchase price, he didn’t get accepted into any of the earlier sales and ended up at the OBS July training sale, which was moved back from June due to the pandemic.”
Even so, his modest catalog page might have prevented him from landing with a top trainer. But Amr Zedan paid attention because he knew sire Protonico, a homebred campaigned by his friend, Oussama Aboughazale. Zedan had recently shelled out $1.35 million for OBS Spring topper Princess Noor, another bred by Aboughazale’s International Equities Holding, Inc.
Zedan’s adviser, bloodstock agent-cum-clocker Gary Young, was back at OBS to survey more potential purchases. Prompted by Zedan to look closely at the Protonico colt, Young inspected him at the barn, and had his veterinarian go over him as well before giving the green light.
Zedan named him Medina Spirit, in tribute to his and Aboughazale’s Saudi hometown. Medina has critical importance in Islamic history as well.
“Medina Spirit went to Baffert’s assistant Mike Marlow at Los Alamitos,” Young told Santa Anita’s Ed Golden in the Feb. 7 barn notes. “Mike is brutally honest, and he has to be because he’s preparing these horses for Baffert.
“Mike said the horse kept surprising him because he was outworking more expensive and better-bred horses and definitely holding his own.”
Medina Spirit’s work pattern presaged his racing career. A supremely brave winner of the Robert B. Lewis (G3), the hard-trying colt has never finished worse than second, racking up placings in the Sham (G3), San Felipe (G2), and Santa Anita Derby (G1).
By returning to the Kentucky Derby with an inexpensive overachiever, Baffert is coming full circle. Long before he won the Triple Crown with exquisite homebred American Pharoah and pricey blueblood Justify, Baffert had made a name for himself by turning blue-collar horses into champions – e.g., his first two Derby heroes, Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998). It would be fitting if he sets a new Derby-winning record with a horse reminiscent of his own modest roots in the game.
Whitman expresses the blue-collar versus blueblood dynamic well:
“When Medina Spirit starts in the Derby for Baffert, it will be my proudest moment to have bought and sold a Derby horse since starting my Whitman Sales consignment 15 years ago.
“Medina Spirit might be overlooked because he doesn’t have a flashy pedigree or expensive price tag, but to me he has more heart than any horse in the field.
“Medina Spirit has never lost to any horse that has stared him in the eye, and if everyone else doesn’t get a picture-perfect trip on the front end, and Medina can take them head-on to a battle down the lane, then he’s got a fighting chance to win something big for all us no-pedigreed little people.”
Andrew Vanlangendonck, whose family’s Summerfield first consigned Medina Spirit, observes how the sport of racing is a great equalizer:
“He is the perfect example of why this industry is so great. He is a very pretty horse that was by an uncommercial sire and was offered with no reserve simply to reduce Gail’s herd.
“That’s why this industry is so great; you can be a billionaire or a small breeder and still end up at the Derby.”