Photo: Coady Photography

The $1000 yearling who won the Kentucky Derby

Tim Barton
5 May 2021

There was no hype when lot 448 went through the ring at a Florida mixed-bloodstock sale in January 2019.

The dark brown yearling colt – who was still two months away from his first birthday - was in the ring for less than 45 seconds, before being sold at the sale upset price of US$1,000.

There was not an even under-bidder. The only person who showed any interest in the son of the first-crop sire Protonico was local horsewoman Christy Whitman.

Whitman, who was on the lookout for a cheap horse who could be pinhooked (sold on) at the two-year-old sales the following year, liked the horse on type and was the sole bidder.

The most expensive thoroughbred yearling sold in the US that year was an American Pharoah filly who made US$8.2 million. At least 30 yearlings made US$1 million or more and others from the same crop made seven-figures at the two-year-old sales.

In most cases, and particularly for the colts, the ultimate target would be to win the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The 2021 Derby was run last weekend and was won by Medina Spirit, the $1,000 ugly duckling from Florida, who grew into a swan at Churchill Downs. None of the million-dollar youngsters made the field.

It is a story line that gives heart to all the small-scale breeders and owners.

A host of major studs and breeders around the world begin each northern hemisphere season with hopes of being credited as the breeder of the Kentucky Derby winner but were upstaged last weekend by a hobby breeder.

Medina Spirit was bred in Florida by Gail Rice, who has never owned more than four mares at any time.

Medina Spirit is the first foal from Mongolian Changa, a $9000 yearling buy, who won one race as a two-year-old – in Pennsylvania - when owned and trained by Rice’s former husband, Wayne.

Rice was given Mongolian Changa as a broodmare and did some research before mating her with the Giant’s Causeway horse Protonico, who stood his first season at US$6,500. Mongolian Changa is a granddaughter of Dynaformer and Rice discovered that the cross of Giant’s Causeway with mares by Dynaformer or his sons, had an unusually good record. “He [Protonico] was also affordable,” Rice said after the Derby win.

At the time Rice offered Medina Spirit for sale, she could not afford the cost of raising and racing the colt, so had to accept the $1,000 offer.

Normally, anybody who breeds a Kentucky Derby winner will also profit, at least to some degree, through selling or keeping the future siblings but that is not an option for Rice. She did not get another foal from Mongolian Changa and, after Medina Spirit sold cheaply, gave the mare away. She did keep a 10 percent interest initially, but the mare has since been resold.

However, she was not complaining following the Derby. "I got my dream," she said. ”I'm so happy that I touched him for the first eight to nine months of his life. He came off my farm, out of my mare. It's like wow.”

Whitman’s thoroughbred business is based around pinhooking and sales preparation and she buys young horses almost entirely on type, relying on her eye to sort the wheat from the chaff. Because she operates at the lower end of the market, she does not get her prospective buys vetted and generally does not see the horses till they are in the outer parade ring.

She gives little attention to the pedigree page and knew nothing about Protonico before Medina Spirit caught her eye.

“I just really liked him,” Whitman said after the Derby win. “He was really well-balanced, with a good hip and great top line. He was very correct and athletic. He was all the things I look for when looking for horses, but no one was looking at him. I knew he was going to go cheap because of his pedigree.

“One thing I’ve always been adamant about is that a lot of people overlook a horse for what I would say are stupid reasons, like their [catalogue] page.”

Because Medina Spirit was so cheap as a yearling, Whitman had trouble getting the colt into the two-year-old sales but he was eventually offered at the Ocala July sale, where he made US$35,000, after breezing up well.

Whitman was happy to take the profit with Medina Spirit and gave no thought to retaining the horse. “If I had kept the horse and raced him, he would never had made it to the Derby,” she said. “It takes a lot of things coming together to make that happen. He’s a good horse but it is important that he wound up with a good trainer in Bob Baffert.”

Baffert, who was enjoying a record seventh Kentucky Derby triumph, has long been one of the leading trainers in North America and would have relatively few cheap horses on his books. But Medina Spirit was bought by Zedan Racing principal Amr Zedan, who has all his horses with Baffert.

Zedan mainly buys at the top end of the market and paid $1.7 million for a two-year-old in March but a friend had suggested that Zedan and his advisors check out Medina Spirit. Bloodstock agent Gary Young and Baffert both gave the horse a tick and the Kentucky Derby journey was underway.

And what of the $8.2 million American Pharoah-Leslie’s Lady filly, the headline yearling of 2019. Named America’s Joy, she is still unraced.

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