Division Rankings: The loss of Medina Spirit

Division Rankings: The loss of Medina Spirit
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

To say the news of Medina Spirit’s untimely death hit me hard is an understatement. Upon receiving the grim news, I was in disbelief. This was a gut punch the likes of which I haven’t felt since Go For Wand’s tragic death in the 1990 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

I never met Medina Spirit, but came close at Del Mar last month, standing just a few feet from him as he made his way to the racetrack for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But, as everyone reading this knows, we don’t need to meet a race horse personally to fall in love with them.

Throughout the racing season I chronical each divisional Eclipse race, and each week I shine the spotlight on a horse or division that piques my interest. When putting together these rankings I don’t play favorites or take the connections into consideration whatsoever, and I try my best to rank the horses based off merit on the racetrack. This is about the horses, and the horses only.

I read somewhere recently that writers aren’t supposed to have rooting interests or favorites, I will respectfully disagree with that statement. I think most fans reading this were drawn to this sport by a particular horse they fell in love with for one reason or another. I may be a writer now, but I will always be a fan first.

Same as many of you reading this, some horses just become favorites of mine. That doesn’t mean I rank them any higher than they should be, it just means I have grown attached to them for one reason or another and follow their careers more closely than others.

Medina Spirit was one of those horses for me this season. Although he ran well on the Kentucky Derby trail, he only won once. But despite that, he showed me something, he hated to be passed by other horses. He gave it his all in every start, no matter if another horse had been in front of him, he wasn’t letting anyone pass him in the stretch. In many ways he reminded me of another favorite of mine, Silver Charm prior to the 1997 Kentucky Derby

The shocking death by apparent heart attack that Medina Spirit suffered just after his workout on Monday was devastating for the people who care for the horse on a daily basis, the groom, the hotwalker, the people around him every day who showed their love for him. Medina Spirit knew he was loved, and for that, I am thankful.

Of course, Medina Spirit knew nothing of the controversy surrounding much of his racing career because of the Kentucky Derby failed post-race drug test, the heated debates between fans and writers alike, and of course the misguided bias against him from those same fans and writers all because of their disdain for the connections as a result of that preliminary test result.

I have never seen such a heated debate over one horse as I had seen the past six months. It was sad in some ways, with some fans not even referring to the horse by his own name, instead choosing to mock him because of that failed test. Even the President of the United States chimed in after the Kentucky Derby calling Medina Spirit a “junkie”, a truly irresponsible statement about a subject he knew nothing about.

I will echo what Randy Moss from NBC stated, the thought that Medina Spirit was “drugged” could not be further from the truth as the 21 picograms of the steroid betamethasone that was part of an ointment used to treat a skin condition constitutes an incredibly small amount, and according to anybody who knows anything about veterinary science, that had absolutely zero impact on the way the horse performed in the Kentucky Derby.

We will never know what the racing future would have had in store for Medina Spirit, his future was bright for sure, but now all we can do is wonder what could have been. He proved the last few months that he was indeed the real deal, and a worthy Kentucky Derby winner and the best in his class. But one thing he was robbed of was the respect he deserved by the racing world.

Perhaps we can all learn a lesson from this, these horses are fragile, and racing careers – or lives, can be cut short at any time. There is no room for the vitriol when it comes to the horses, they are the innocent ones.

As for the Eclipse Award, most know my thoughts on that. But I did read the past few days where it was stated that most voters are now in a quandary concerning Medina Spirit because of his death? How so? How does his death change what happened on the racetrack? That’s a short sighted and bizarre take.

No need to get into the Eclipse debate, I fully expect group think and personal bias towards the Medina Spirit connections to deprive him of the Eclipse. Race results take a back seat for many in this case, and that’s unfortunate.

So here we are. Medina Spirit is the first Classic winner to leave us this soon since Preakness winner Prairie Bayou’s demise in the 1993 Belmont. One other horse came to mind when hearing how Medina Spirit died, Swale in 1984. He died just after a workout from a heart attack just four days after his Belmont win.

Rest in peace is a cliché term to use here, it’s not enough for me in this case, but I believe Medina Spirit is in a better place now, and running free.

So long my friend.

Older dirt males

1. Knicks Go. Will be a deserving Horse of the Year as he won the Pegasus World Cup (G1) in his first start of the season and capped off his year with a facile score in the Breeders' Cup Classic. By far the best in this division, a meeting with Life is Good in the Pegasus could be next.

2. Maxfield. Closed his career as a winner in the Clark (G1) validating his spot here. The Clark was just his first Grade 1 win since he was age two.

3. Silver State. Disappointed in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, finishing fifth. The Met Mile (G1) winner led this division for a few weeks earlier this season.

4. Max Player. An abysmal showing in the Breeders' Cup Classic, where he finished in last. The winner of the Suburban (G2) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) was an improved horse this year but found the Classic waters too deep.

5. Mystic Guide. Ran only three times this season, but his Dubai World Cup win was outstanding and when all is said and done, he deserves this top five ranking just based on that – and partly because no other deserves to be ranked ahead of him.

Next 5: Art Collector, Tripoli, Dr Post, Happy Saver, Independence Hall.

Older dirt females

1. Letruska. Despite her off-the-board finish in the Breeders' Cup Distaff she was clearly the best in this division in 2021. Will win the Eclipse and be back in 2022.

2. Shedaresthedevil. Was part of the early scorching pace in the Distaff, which also saw her finish off the board. Still, she had a nice season that saw her win four graded stakes.

3. Dunbar Road. Nearly pulled off the Breeders' Cup Distaff win, losing by a nose. She didn't win a race this season, but her last two runner-up efforts place her among the best in division.

4. Bonny South. Was simply second best in the Fall City (G2), losing to Evoutante last out. Previois to that she waas runner-up in two straight Grade 1 events, the Spinster and the Personal Ensign. Her lone win in 2021 came in the Doubledogdare (G3) at Churchill Downs. 

5. Royal Flag. Certainly had the right pace in the Distaff but could muster only a fifth-place finish. Previously she beat a subpar field in the Beldame (G2) and was a good third to Letruska in the Personal Ensign.

Next 5:
 Envoutante, As Time Goes By, Gamine, Crystal Ball, Antoinette.

3-year-old males

1. Medina Spirit. Tragic end to a life taken much too soon. His runner-up finish in the Classic should net him the Eclipse in this division. Tied for the most Grade 1 wins in the division, he also has a win over older, something his closest rivals, Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie, do not have. Finished ahead of Essential Quality the two times they met on the racetrack.

2. Essential Quality. Was game in his third-place Breeders' Cup Classic finish, but as in the Kentucky Derby, he had the entire stretch to pass his 3-year-old rival but couldn't do it despite having the better trip. He is retired now after a spectacular career that saw him lose only two races. Could the gap between the Travers (G1) and Classic have cost him the race? Perhaps.

3. Hot Rod Charlie. He too was in the thick of things in the Classic stretch but fell just short finishing fourth. An outstanding season for this son of Oxbow. He will be back later this month at Santa Anita in the San Antonio Stakes (G2) and will carry the torch as the last of the Big Three to be in training.

4. Life is Good. Easy winner of the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Big things will be expected for this son of Into Mischief in 2022, when a clash with Knicks Go may be on the Pegasus World Cup menu in late January. Still skeptical he will be as effective at 9 or 10 furlongs.

5. Midnight Bourbon. Found the Clark (G1) waters a little too deep against older when beaten by Maxfield and Happy Saver. He was a clear second best previously in the Penn Derby (G1) to Hot Rod Charlie and previous to that was a close runner-up to Essential Quality in the Travers. 

Next 5: Mandaloun, Rombauer, Dr. Schivel, Jackie's Warrior, Golden Pal.

3-year-old females

1. Malathaat. Ran well in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, falling just a 1/2 length short in finishing third. The Alabama (G1) and Kentucky Oaks winner is a lock for this Eclipse.

2. Clairiere. Ran a very nice race against a tough field in the Distaff where for a brief second or two looked like she was going to win. Instead, she settled for a close fourth, 3/4 of a length from the winner.

3. Search Results. Cutting back to the seven-furlong Test Stakes (G1) last out, she finished an even third. Previously she was an impressive winner of the Acorn, which was her first Grade 1 win. Suffered her only loss, to Malathaat, in the Kentucky Oaks earlier this season, but she was game in defeat. Her connections have decided to take her out of training and point to a 4-year-old campaign. Will likely drop from this spot in the coming weeks.

4. Private MissionSuicidal Breeders' Cup Distaff pace aside, this filly has a bright future. Prior to the Distaff, she was a nice winner of the Zenyatta (G2) over older and the Torrey Pines (G3) over fellow 3-year-old fillies.

5. Soothsay. Showing tremendous fight and determination in the stretch of her Indiana Oaks (G3) win, Soothsay looked like a different horse from the one we saw previously in her loss to Crazy Beautiful in the Summertime Oaks (G2). On the shelf now till 2022.

Next 5: Army Wife, Obligatory, Crazy Beautiful, Zaajel, Maracuja.

Turf males

1. Domestic Spending. Runner-up in the Mister D (G1), he couldn't overcome a slow place set by winner Two Emmys. The loss leaves this division open for the taking. He has won two Grade 1 events this season; his facile Manhattan Stakes (G1) win at Belmont was superb, defeating several others ranked below. Had to scratch out of the Breeders' Cup but likely will still win the Eclipse in this division.

2. Smooth Like Strait. It was this guy who ran the best of the U.S.-based grass horses in the two major Breeders' Cup grass races. His runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Mile summed up his entire season – tough as nails and always runs his race. Will be back in 2022.

3. Colonel Liam. Like Domestic Spending, this guy also has two Grade 1 wins on his resume, but he sports a Grade 2 win in 2021 too. True, he did go down to defeat in the Manhattan in June, but it was his first loss of 2021. He had been running since January and has won three stakes. Off since that Manhattan loss. Retains this high ranking because no other in this division did enough to pass him.

4. Golden Pal. It has been a long time since I ranked a turf sprinter this high, but he deserves it. He ran only four times in 2021, winning three of them. But his Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint was a thing of beauty, dominating from start to finish to post an easy win.

5. Mo Forza. Finishing 13th and last in the Breeders' Cup Mile after being pinched back at the start. He was sensational in his only other starts this season, two wins in graded stakes. He is now retired.

Next 5: United, Hit the Road, Japan, Tribhuvan, Rockemperor.

Turf females

1. War Like Goddess. Tough-luck loser of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, she is still tops in this division. A winner of four graded stakes this season, including the Flower Bowl (G1) at Belmont Park

2. Althiqa. Returned in the First Lady (G1) at Keeneland and disappointed as the favorite while finishing fourth. That effort dropped her from my top spot. Previously, she won back-to-back Grade 1 events, the Diana and Just a Game. Has since been retired.

3. Going Global. This 3-year-old filly upset Princess Grace on the Breeders' Cup undercard and now has quietly won five graded stakes this season. My only knock on her is that she never left her home base of California in 2021.

4. Santa Barbara. Was a dual Grade 1 winner in this country in 2021. She died tragically of a pelvic injury in September, but her resume in this country places here in the top five.

5. Mean Mary. No excuses in the Beverly D, but she was game to hold the runner-up spot. She was simply second best to Santa Barbara. Prior to the Beverly D she was victorious in the New York Stakes (G2) and previous to winning that race, Mean Mary was best in the Gallorette Stakes (G3) at Pimlico. Has since been retired because of injury.

Next 5: Regal Glory, Princess Grace, Blowout, My Sister Nat, Going to Vegas.

Male sprinters

1. Dr. Schivel. This guy proved his worth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, silencing many who doubted he could hang with Jackie's Warrior. He wasn't far off of the pace set by Jackie's Warrior, and he came running in the stretch only to drop a heartbreaking nose decision to Aloha West. He must be ranked No. 1 here based off his resume. He owns a Grade 1 win over older, something Jackie's Warrior does not. He also defeated Jackie's Warrior in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He might run in the Malibu (G1) later this month to solidify his Eclipse resume.

2. Jackie's Warrior. Ran the worst race of his career in the Breeders' Cup Sprint as he didn't have an answer turning for home after setting honest fractions. He was outstanding in his previous three starts, all wins. But his resume just is not as good as Dr. Schivel's.

3. Aloha West. Rockets all the way to No. 3 after not being ranked previously. The Breeders' Cup Sprint winner closed stoutly in the stretch to win by a nose. The Breeders' Cup was his first graded-stakes win.

4. Following Sea. Ran well in last weekend's  Cigar Mile finishing runner-up to fellow 3-year-old Americanrevolution. Prior to last weekend the Vosburgh (G2) winner ran very well in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, finishing third. 

5. Flagstaff. Tough old veteran fired again in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G2) when finishing second. Earlier this season he was second best in the True North (G2) and won the Churchill Down Stakes (G1). Missed the Breeders' Cup and has been retired.

Next 5: Special Reserve, Ginobili, Lexitonian, C Z Rocket, Firenze Fire.

Female sprinters

1. Gamine. The beaten Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint favorite is still tops in this division. Will win the Eclipse based off her entire 2021 resume.

2. Ce CeWinner of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, she got good at the right time of the year. She won't win the Eclipse, but the future looks very bright heading into 2022.

3. Bella Sofia. This 3-year-old filly prompted the pace set by Gamine in the Breeders' Cup but, like Gamine, had no answer in the stretch when finishing fourth.

4. Bell's the One. Prevailed in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (G2) by a neck but skipped the Breeders’ Cup. She has won three stakes this year, two of which were graded. Won her last start, the Dream Supreme Stakes at Churchill Downs.

5. Sconsin. Super effort last out in the Open Mind Stakes and scratched out of the recent Dream Supreme Stakes against Bell's the One..

Next 5: Estilo Talentoso, Edgeway, Lake Avenue, Kimari, Frank's Rockette.

2-year-old males
1. Corniche. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner moves up to this spot and likely will also get the Eclipse in this division based off of his 3-for-3 record. 2. Jack Christopher. Had to scratch out of the Breeders' Cup, but previously he won the Champagne (G1) in dominant fashion. He is 2-for-2 on his career and will still get some votes for the Eclipse. 3. Major General. Winner of both his starts, he won the Iroquois Stakes (G3) last month. 4. Rattle N Roll. Impressive winner of the Breeders' Futurity (G1), he skipped the Breeders' Cup. 5. Pappacap. Runner-up to Corniche in this last two starts, he has to move up based just on that. Next 5: Smile Happy, Messier, Pinehurst, Commandperformance, Mo Donegal.
2-year-old females
1. Echo Zulu. The best 2-year-old in the country, she was dominant in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, winning by over five lengths. Completes an unbeaten 4-for-4 season with three Grade 1 wins, a rarity for 2-year-olds nowadays. 2. Juju's Map. Ran well in the Breeders' Cup but was second best to Echo Zulu. Previously she was the winner of the Alcibiades (G1) as the favorite at Keeneland after breaking her maiden at Ellis Park. 3. Ain't Easy. Facile winner of the Chandelier (G2) at Santa Anita, she is 2-for-2 thus far in her career but skipped the Breeders' Cup. 4. Hidden Connection. Disappointed in the Breeders' Cup, finishing fourth. The Midwest star previously had won both her starts, the Pocahontas Stakes (G3) being her last. 5. Tarabi. Three starts for this gal, and she has placed in each. She was second to Echo Zulu in the Spinaway (G1) over the summer and finished third to that rival in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Next 5: Eda, Behave Virginia, Dance to the Music, Happy Soul, Pizza Bianca.

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 many local sports radio show appearances as an on-air racing expert. 

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.

 The Loss of Medina Spirit

California Chrome in Rarified Air

Cigar and the Pacific Classic

Spending Time With Game on Dude

Go For Wand: Gone But Not Forgotten

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