Medina Spirit's modest breeding: 'The stars aligned'

Medina Spirit's modest breeding: 'The stars aligned'
Photo: Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire

Breeder Gail Rice will always believe that overachieving Medina Spirit was destined to win the Kentucky Derby.

“His path was made, and my situation was made, to put that horse where he was on the first Saturday of May 2021,” she said.

There was nothing about Rice’s situation as a small-scale Florida breeder that suggested she might someday produce a horse capable of reaching the Derby, not to mention winning it.

Rice, 59, typically relies on broodmares that look the part but lack significant resumes. When she shops for sires, affordability is high on her list of requirements.

Mongolian Changa, Medina Spirit’s dam, did not break her maiden until her fourth career start, that coming at Presque Isle Downs. A bowed tendon forced her to be retired with career earnings of $25,970.

Mongolian Changa’s pairing with Protonico was much more about budget than brilliance. Rice always appreciated Grade 2-winning Protonico as a good racehorse, and she was encouraged that he is a son of Giant’s Causeway. What she liked most, though, was her ability to swing a deal for a $5,000 stud fee, which was within her limited budget.

Rice’s daughter, Taylor, a former jockey who is married to Eclipse Award-winning rider Jose Ortiz, never envisioned the magic that followed. There was no way to anticipate that the foal would be of Medina Spirit’s caliber.

“I think with this horse, all of the stars aligned just perfectly for him to be successful,” Taylor said. “I don’t think any of us, or anyone across the world, would have guessed as a weanling or even as a yearling that this was where he was going to end up. Meager breeding on both sides, an unknown stallion and a mare who is unproven with her first foal.”

It helped that her mother was the perfect person to oversee everything, with a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Mongolian Changa was overdue and not showing any signs of readiness when Rice returned to the farm to spot her in the field in the early stages of delivery. Rice, her son, Kevin, and her daughter-in-law Emily rushed to assist.

“It was kind of a project to get the baby out, and then we’ve got a dilemma. There’s no milk. There’s no colostrum. The baby has to have colostrum,” recalled Rice. The first milk the dam provides her foal is rich in colostrum, which contains essential antibodies.

Since Mongolian Changa’s body was not quite ready to supply that, Rice hurried to retrieve colostrum produced by another dam, Scribbling Sarah, that she had frozen in case such an emergency arose.

“I bottle fed him his first meal from a different mare, a Grade 1 producer,” the breeder noted. Mongolian Changa was able to assume her maternal duties soon after that.

Rice liked everything about the foal that would become Medina Spirit.

“You think babies are ugly, but you see the shoulder line, you see the hip line, you see the leg,” she noted. “He was beautiful from Day One.”

There were other good signs as the foal grew. He loved to run in the paddock; he played aggressively. The desire to keep him was immense. Finances simply would not allow it. Rice thought he would fetch $10,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales 2019 Winter Mixed Sale. Sharp pinhooker Christy Whitman brought him home for a mere $1,000.

“I was sick when he only brought $1,000, but I didn’t dare raise my hand to fight,” Rice said, recognizing at the time that she would have one less mouth to feed and care for.

Rice estimated that she might have lost as much as $10,000 while producing and developing the Derby winner, underscoring the massive challenges that small breeders, in particular, face. She does not dwell on the financial hit or that she parted with a colt that turned out so well. Amr Zedan later purchased him for $35,000 and assigned him to West Coast-based Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. Rice noted that she would have gelded Medina Spirit while preparing him in Florida to race.

“I’m thankful it worked out the way it did,” she said, appreciating how much had gone right in a business in which so much can go wrong.

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