When Medina Spirit crossed the wire first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby, it looked as if normalcy had finally been restored to American thoroughbred racing.
A crowd of over 50,000 people packed Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May to see the big race, cheer Medina Spirit home, and watch superstar trainer Bob Baffert hoist the derby trophy on the infield for the eighth time. Nothing seemed more normal than that.
But just a few days later, a cloud of controversy came over Baffert, Medina Spirit, and the racing world itself when the Derby champion tested positive for a banned substance. Baffert denied that he doped the Derby champion on purpose, but he had been caught giving other horses in his barn performance-enhancing substances before.
That led to a protracted legal battle that concluded with Medina Spirit — who died suddenly while training last December— being disqualified in February as Kentucky Derby champion (the title was given to runner-up Mandaloun) and Baffert being banned from this year’s Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs. (The New York Racing Association is now weighing a two-year ban on Baffert as well).
But much like show business, the racing goes on despite the controversy. Twenty horses will enter the Churchill Downs starting gate this coming Saturday, May 7, for the 148th Kentucky Derby. A crowd of more than 100,000 will cheer the field on in the greatest two minutes of sports, and after the race, the big question will hopefully be whether the Derby winner can go on to sweep the Triple Crown.
And many of them, we suspect, will be rooting for the same thing: a clean race, a fun day, and a scandal-free, normal champion.
Let’s face it: The last three Kentucky Derby winners, of course, were anything but normal.
Two years before the Medina Spirit debacle, there was the disqualification heard ’round the world. Maximum Security looked like a clear-cut winner of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, but he was disqualified minutes later after his jockey, Luis Saez, caused interference with other horses at the top of the stretch.
Maximum Security, who had been the favorite, lost the top spot to Country House, a longshot trained by William Mott and ridden by Flavien Prat. While Maximum Security would go on to win other races legitimately, Country House wound up getting injured before the Preakness Stakes, and would never race again.
A denied Triple Crown chance, however, was the last thing on anyone’s mind on the first Saturday of May in 2020. For that matter, so was the Kentucky Derby itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the country then, and the big race was postponed as many racetracks suspended operations during the deadly spring wave. NBC, which broadcasts the Kentucky Derby, aired in May a virtual Kentucky Derby simulation pitting the 13 Triple Crown winners against each other; Secretariat, the legendary 1973 Triple Crown winner, naturally won the computer race.
The Triple Crown was turned on its ear in 2020. Racing resumed at most venues in June, and the Belmont Stakes — normally the third leg of the Triple Crown, run at 1 ½ miles in distance — became the first leg at an abbreviated distance of 1 ⅛ miles in June.
Tiz the Law, the New York-bred who won the Belmont Stakes, entered the rescheduled Kentucky Derby that September as the odds-on favorite to win the second leg of the Triple Crown, with a potential sweep in the rescheduled Preakness Stakes that October far off in the distance.
All 17 horses and riders in the Kentucky Derby entered the Churchill Downs track to a subdued atmosphere. Capacity was limited to just 23,000 socially distanced spectators; a bugler played a somber version of “My Old Kentucky Home” in recognition of the pandemic and the social unrest gripping the country following that year’s George Floyd protests.
In the end, Tiz the Law’s bid for the Kentucky Derby would be denied by Authentic, who became Baffert’s seventh Kentucky Derby champion and would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic two months later.