Division Rankings: Derby hero Medina Spirit rises to top

Division Rankings: Derby hero Medina Spirit rises to top
Photo: Candice Chavez/Eclipse Sportswire

In the weeks leading up to last week's Kentucky Derby, avid readers of the Division Rankings knew that I was high on Medina Spirit. In last week's edition of the rankings, I told readers to not sleep on Medina Spirit, and that if he was able to secure the early lead, he would be tough to pass. 

Medina Spirit was indeed tough to pass and he showed the world that he was a worthy Kentucky Derby winner.

Before I give my brief post Kentucky Derby thoughts, lets take a look at the updated Division Rankings:

Older dirt males

1. Mystic Guide. Solid win in Dubai and is 2-for-2 on the season, but the Dubai World Cup (G1) field he defeated was nowhere near what we have come to expect from Dubai World Cup fields. Certainly has done enough to move into the top spot, though I am not sure how long he will stay here. In the states now and working at Keeneland, the Stephen Foster (G2) at Churchill Downs in June should be next.

2. Maxfield. Rebounded nicely from his first loss, a third-place finish in the Santa Anita Handicap (G1), with a win in last week's Alysheba (G2) at Churchill Downs. The Stephen Foster will be next.

3. Silver State. 3-for-3 on the season, his Oaklawn Handicap (G2) win stamped him as a legitimate Eclipse contender in this division. He deserves this spot for what he has done in 2021.

4. Charlatan. Skipped his expected start last weekend in the Churchill Downs Stakes (G1). We likely will not see him again until Belmont weekend in the Met Mile (G1).

5. Knicks Go. Also back on the work tab, he will be pointed toward the Steve Sexton Mile (G3) on May 31 at Lone Star. Despite his fourth-place finish in the Saudi Cup, which halted a four-race winning streak, I still believe he is the goods.

Next 5: Idol, Express Train, By My Standards, Rushie, Fearless. 

Older dirt females

1. Letruska. Was simply spectacular in the Apple Blossom (G1), prevailing in an epic stretch duel over a future Hall of Famer in Monomoy Girl. She is 13-for-17 on her career now. A fascinating story, this mare started her career in Mexico City and ran six times, all wins, and was a champion in Mexico for her Mexican connections. She becomes the first horse who started their career in Mexico to win a Grade 1 race in this country. She is deservedly the No. 1 ranked female in this division and will be the leader in the Eclipse race as we near the halfway point of the season.

2. Shedaresthedevil. She was much the best in last week's La Troienne Stakes (G1), defeating a good field of older females. Previously this gal was gritty in her head win in the Azeri (G2) over Letruska, so why isn't she No. 1? Given how close their race was, and the field Letruska defeated in the aforementioned Apple Blossom, Letruska gets the slight nod. She could run against her stablemate, Monomoy Girl, in the Ogden Phipps on Belmont Day.

3. Monomoy Girl. Was gallant to the finish in the Apple Blossom, but came up a nose short. Clearly still on top of her game, something I wondered aloud about heading into this last race, she will stick to running against females for now. The Ogden Phipps on Belmont day will likely be her next start.

4. Swiss Skydiver. No excuses for last year's Preakness winner, she came up flat in the stretch and finished a well-beaten third, nearly seven lengths back in the Apple Blossom. She probably will be more competitive going longer, but the fact is she is now 0-for-2 against Monomoy Girl.

5. Gamine. Had to work for her win in last week's Derby City Distaff (G1) over Sconsin, it is pretty clear now she will be kept sprinting. Still, she got the job done with the win. With fans used to the dominant Gamine we saw in 2020, the 2021 version has not been quite the same. Perhaps it is because this season she has been forced to run without Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication, after running with it in all of her previous starts.

Next 5:  As Time Goes By, Envoutante, Bonny South, Ce Ce, Valiance.

3-year-old males

1. Medina Spirit. Validated his high place in these rankings the last few months with another game performance in the Kentucky Derby as he refused to let another horse pass him. He has been beaten by two horses in his career, and still is not quite getting the credit he deserves after his Derby win. It was those two losses where he impressed me greatly with his grit in battling for the place spot. No, he does not need the lead to win, and very soon the non-believers of this horse will have to respect the heart this guy has displayed in his races.

2. Essential Quality. Only falls one spot after his better-than-it-looked fourth-place finish. Broke poorly out of the gate, lost ground around the turns, but he did have every chance down the lane to pass the leaders. He did run farther than the others because of his trip, but I am still not convinced that the 10 furlongs had something to do with his inability to get there at the end. Now his connections have chosen to skip the Preakness Stakes, a race I felt he would have been tough in and also a race where he could have redeemed himself. Will likely drop again in two weeks.

3. Hot Rod Charlie. Ran his race in Louisville and was in that four-way battle in the stretch for the win. He gamely held off Essential Quality for the show, but could not get by Mandaloun and Medina Spirit. He too will skip the Preakness where he would have been a major player in a race that Kentucky Derby horses usually dominate.

4. Mandaloun. Tremendous race from this guy with his Kentucky Derby runner-up finish. It demonstrated that his Louisiana Derby (G2) off-the-board finish was an aberration, a likely bounce from his strong Risen Star Stakes (G2) score one race prior. His connections will also bypas the Preakness.

5. Jackie's Warrior. Around one-turn, he may prove to be very tough. Ran one of the most impressive races of the weekend when winning the Pat Day Mile (G2). In going wire-to-wire, he reeled off a 43.68 half mile split and still had enough to hold off a very good horse in Dream Shake near the wire.

Next 5: Rock Your World, Life Is Good, Midnight Bourbon, Concert Tour, Highly Motivated.

3-year-old females

1. Malathaat. Was sent off as the favorite in a strong edition of the Kentucky Oaks and she came through, narrowly edging Search Results by a neck at the wire. Watching her run, you get the feeling she will relish the Belmont Stakes distance of 12 furlongs, and that is where she may be headed next.

2. Search Results. Suffered her first loss to Malathaat in the Kentucky Oaks, but she was ultra game in defeat. She should get another crack at the top one later this year.

3. Clairiere. Came with her run in the Oaks and missed the show spot by just a nose. She too will have her chances to move up later this season.

4. Travel Column. Was traveling well on the lead in the Kentucky Oaks but the nine furlongs may have been her undoing and she faded in the stretch to be beaten a little over five lengths. The one mile Acorn Stakes (G1) at Belmont in June would suit her fine for her next start.

5. Will's Secret. Back-to-back third-place finishes in Grade 1 events bumps her up to this spot. She narrowly held off Clairiere for the show spot in the Kentucky Oaks in a nice effort.

Next 5:  Wholebodemeister, Soothsay, Pauline's Pearl, Crazy Beautiful, Beautiful Gift.

Turf males

1. Colonel Liam. Finally faced a tough field of turf horses and he passed the test as he dead heated with the very good Domestic Spending for the win in the Turf Classic (G1) at Churchill Downs. Now 3-for-3 on the season, he is a serious player for the Eclipse as this race starts to heat up.

2. Domestic Spending. The Turf Classic was his second Grade 1 win in a row, previously taking the Hollywood Derby last fall. Now 5-for-6 on his career, trainer Chad Brown has himself another turf star.

3. Channel Maker. He simply didn't run his best race in Dubai, where he finished eighth, beaten six lengths in the Sheema Classic (G1). Previously, he ran a gallant race to finish second in the Neom Turf Cup In Saudi Arabia. Will be back racing in New York this summer.

4. Raging Bull. Certainly an impressive win in the Maker's Mark Mile (G1), his first start of 2021. Moves up to this spot for now, but I cannot help but remember last season when he was impressive in first start of 2020 in Santa Anita's Shoemaker Mile, also a Grade 1 win. He then went winless for the remainder of the season. In other words, I am skeptical he can string together wins.

5. Smooth Like Strait. This guy is two necks and a head from being a three-time Grade 1 winner. He set the pace in the Turf Classic and was just edged by a neck nearing the wire to finish third.

Next 5: Hit the Road, United, Ivar, Digital Age, Tribhuvan.

Turf females

1. Juliet Foxtrot. Has to be No. 1 for now as she posses a Grade 1 in 2021 as this gal came out on top a few weeks ago in the Jenny Wiley at Keeneland. She previously had placed in four Grade 1 events, but this was her first win at the top level. Last season she was 1-for-5, with her lone win coming in the Gallorette (G3) at Pimlico.

2. Blowout. After four straight runner-up finishes, she finally entered the winners circle with her strong win in last weekend's Distaff Turf Mile (G2) at Churchill Downs. The Turf Mile was her first start of 2021, she ended 2020 with a runner-up effort in the Matriarch (G1) at Santa Anita.

3. Mean Mary. Will finally make her return to the races June 4 in the New York Stakes (G2) at Belmont Park. Although she may drop from this spot before then, she was No. 1 for a few weeks in 2020 and if she runs like she did in 2020, she is the favorite for the Eclipse in this division. 

Harvey's Lil Goil. She was third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf last season at age 3 and won the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup (G1) at Keeneland last fall. She is back in 2021 and will be a player in this division. Has been off the board only once in nine starts.

5. Charmaine's Mia. With her win in the Royal Heroine (G2) at Santa Anita, she ran her record to 3-for-3 on the year. All three of her wins have come in graded stakes, the most of any horse in her division thus far.

Next 5: Viadera, Mucho Unusual, Magic Attitude, Civil Union, Jolie Olimpica.

Male sprinters

1. C Z Rocket. Cemented his position here at the top with another win over Whitmore, this time in the Count Fleet Sprint (G3). He has quietly won seven of his last eight and is leading the Eclipse race as we enter the spring.

2. Mischevious Alex. Won his first Grade 1 race a few weeks ago in the Carter at Aqueduct in impressive fashion. Previously he scored in the Gulfstream Park Sprint (G3) in impressive fashion. He is the real deal this year, and his speed figures are on par or better than anyone else in this division. He could run in the Met Mile next.

3. Flagstaff. Tough old veteran is at the top of his game now as he scored his first Grade 1 win from 19 career starts in last week's Churchill Downs Stakes. With two straight wins, these top three are tough to separate right now.

4. Whitmore. Another tough loss for this guy as he briefly had the lead late in the Churchill Downs Stakes, but was edged at the wire where he finished a close third in a blanket finish with four others. Previously he was twice runner-up to C Z Rocket at Oaklawn. As honest as they come.

5. Cezanne. Certainly a visually impressive win in the Kona Gold (G3) at Santa Anita, where he won by over nine lengths, but pump the brakes before you hand him the Eclipse. He beat only three other horses as he was able to lay far off a blazing early pace set by the race favorite, Brickyard Ride. In other words, I need to see a lot more before he moves up.

Next 5: Wildman Jack, Brickyard Ride, Empire of Gold, Lexitonian, Extravagant Kid.

Female sprinters

1. Gamine. Had to work for her win in last week's Derby City Distaff over Sconsin, still, she got the job done with the win. With fans used to the dominant Gamine we saw in 2020, the 2021 version hasn't been quite the same. Perhaps it is because this season she has been forced to run without Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication, after running with it in all of her previous starts.

2. Kimari. In her first graded stakes race on the dirt she did not disappoint, edging away in the stretch for a 3/4-length win over Bell's the One in the Madison (G1) at Keeneland. Have to believe she would have been tough in last weekend's Derby City Distaff, but her connections opted not to enter. That may cost them come Eclipse voting time.

3. Sconsin. Off the board in her seasonal debut in the Madison a few weeks ago, she shook the rust off with a strong runner-up finish to Gamine in the Derby City Distaff where she looked like she may run by the heavy favorite in the stretch. Remember, this gal finished fourth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.

4. Bell's the One. Another somewhat of a disappointing effort when she was off the board in the Derby City, finishing fourth and beaten by over five lengths. I will keep her here for now, because I still believe she is among the best in this division. But one more subpar effort and she will drop.

5. Merneith. Won the Santa Monica (G2) last out and previously was third in the La Brea (G1) in December. Looks like she is finally realizing her potential for trainer Bob Baffert. In light training, she is not expected back until at least May.

Next 5: Edgeway, Estilo Talentoso, Frank's Rockette, Pacific Gale, Venetian Harbor.

Medina Spirit was everything I expected in last week's Kentucky Derby, and it all started with the post position draw a few days prior.

It was clear after the draw that when all of the other horses who had shown early speed in their previous starts drew to his outside, Medina Spirit would likely be on the lead. Trainer Bob Baffert would instruct jockey John Velasquez to use Medina Spirit's early foot to secure his position in the front, forcing the hand of the others would have to cross over him to secure the lead.

Once Medina Spirit secured a clear lead passing the stands for the first time, the race was all but over. The son of Protonico had shown in previous starts that he wouldn't back down from a fight.

Ironically, the races that had impressed me the most were his losing races. 

Remember, Medina Spirit has lost to only two horses, Life Is Good and Rock Your World. Life Is Good defeated Medina Spirit twice, but I came away impressed both times with Medina Spirit. The first time they met Medina Spirit gamely dig in and almost caught Life Is Good nearing the wire, losing by less than a length. Some commented afterword that Life Is Good could have won by more, I disagree, and so did trainer Bob Baffert.

The next time they met, Life Is Good won off by eight lengths in the San Felipe. But again, I came away impressed with Medina Spirit's grit as he won the battle for the place spot in a game effort after losing all chance on the first turn with a questionable ride. 

In the days since his Kentucky Derby triumph I have read a wide variety of opinions regarding the running of the race, and the excuses given by the losing connections. It seems we read the same excuses every year. 

This year trainer Brad Cox even went so far as to say that his stable star, Essential Quality, was the best horse in the race. While it is true that Essential Quality ran farther (68 feet) because of his trip, he was not the best horse in the race, the winner was.

In almost every horse race that is run, some losing horses run farther than the winner, that's part of the game. Midnight Bourbon ran 56 feet farther than Medina Spirit, but no one claimed he was the best horse in the race. Essential Quality didn't have the best of breaks, but quickly gathered himself and was put into good position by jockey Luis Saez. He was in striking range on the far turn and and had more than enough time to make up the two lengths he need in the last quarter mile.

Now it's on to the Preakness? Does Medina Spirit need the lead to win? Absolutely not. He has run well from off the lead previously.

Every year there are new shooters to the Preakness but rarely does a horse who did not compete in the Kentucky Derby come away with a win in Baltimore.

Concert Tour is a viable new shooter, but even his best race is several lengths slower than any one of Medina Spirit's past few starts.

So here we are, Medina Spirit rises to the No. 1 spot, and at least for a couple of a weeks, no one can debate it.

Meet Chip Gehrke

Chip Gehrke has been with Horse Racing Nation since 2015 and currently serves as a Featured Writer. Based outside of Chicago, Chip can be found in the press box many weekends during the Arlington Park meet. The On The Air With Dr. Derby name originates from his local sports radio show appearances as an on-air racing expert. Now also a weekly contributor on FOX Sports radio's "The Fast Track," Chip can be heard giving his thoughts on the racing world every weekend.

In 2017, Chip was chosen to be a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association. As a part of the NTWAB, Chip became a voter for the year-end Eclipse Awards, something he takes very seriously. Some of Chip's favorite writings from the last couple of years is the best way to get to know him, along with following him on Twitter at @doctorderby.

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