The sporting world beyond horse racing was shocked Monday morning when 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit suddenly died of an apparent heart attack after a morning workout at Santa Anita Park.

Medina Spirit RIP
Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit collapsed and died Monday morning after a workout at Santa Anita Park. The 3-year-old colt never finished out of the money in 10 career races. (Image: Benoit Photo)

The Bob Baffert-trained 3-year-old had just finished a five-furlong work in 1:01.40 when he collapsed. Santa Anita’s onsite veterinary team attended to Medina Spirit on the track, but couldn’t revive him.

Santa Anita issued a statement shortly after Medina Spirit’s second workout following his runner-up finish to Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Baffert earlier worked him three furlongs in 35.8 seconds on Thanksgiving Day.

“Following the completion of a routine morning workout, Medina Spirit collapsed on the track at Santa Anita Park and died suddenly of a probable cardiac event according to the onsite veterinary team who attended to him,” officials said.

A full necropsy will determine cause of death

The Santa Anita Park veterinary team, led by senior veterinarian Dr. Laurie Bohannon, immediately took blood, hair, and urine samples from Medina Spirit. Those samples were sent to the California Horse Racing Board. A full necropsy, as per protocol in California, run by the University of California-Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine, will be performed to try and ascertain the exact cause of this sudden death.

The results of the necropsy and toxicology studies will be released by the California Horse Racing Board as part of their inquiry into the cause of the incident.

The CHRB issued a similar statement, echoing the protocol that awaits Medina Spirit.

“The 3-year-old colt Medina Spirit, trained by Bob Baffert, was just completing a workout on the main track at Santa Anita this morning (Dec. 6) when he collapsed near the finish line. He died immediately,” read the statement. “This is termed a sudden death. All horses that die within facilities regulated by the California Horse Racing Board undergo postmortem (necropsy) examination at a California Animal Health and Food Safety diagnostic laboratory under the auspices of the University of California Davis. Cause of death cannot be determined until the necropsy and toxicology tests have been completed.”

Medina Spirit’s sudden death isn’t common

Contrary to what many believe, sudden deaths are uncommon for Thoroughbreds. The Thoroughbred Daily News conducted a study published in the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium that revealed 8.2% of all training and racing fatalities between 2007 and 2017 were sudden death incidents.

In California, the TDN study illustrated one death per 9,000 starts and one death per 160,000 training days took place between 2007 and 2013.

That Medina Spirit was trained by Baffert is sure to raise eyebrows and hackles. The seven-time Derby champion, considered the face of horse racing for his distinctive white hair, sunglasses, and open manner toward fans and the media, has been under fire for drug violations. He’s had five violations between May 2020 and May 2021, most involving high-profile horses.

Derby issue remains

None higher profile than Medina Spirit. Most news accounts steer away from calling Medina Spirit the Derby champion because that victory came with a betamethasone asterisk. Medina Spirit tested positive for the corticosteroid that is forbidden on race days in Kentucky.

As of now, that victory stands, pending a yet-to-be-scheduled hearing by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

Last week, Baffert’s attorney, Craig Roberson, issued a statement maintaining that independent testing from a New York laboratory confirmed that betamethasone positive came from a topical ointment and not an injection. Robertson claimed that ointment was used to treat a skin rash.

Baffert: ‘Devastated by this news’

On Monday, Baffert issued a statement released by Robertson.

“It is with great sadness that I am reporting Medina Spirit passed away today from a heart attack at Santa Anita following a workout,” the statement read. “My entire barn is devastated by this news. Medina Spirit was a great champion, a member of our family who was loved by all, and we are deeply mourning his loss. I will always cherish the proud and personal memories of Medina Spirit and his tremendous spirit. Our most sincere condolences go out to Mr. Amr Zedan and the entire Zedan Racing Stables family. They are in our thoughts and prayers as we go through this difficult time.”

Zedan owned Medina Spirit and stuck by Baffert throughout the entire betamethasone ordeal. Zedan remained loyal even as bookmakers put up prop bets on whether Zedan would follow the path of WinStar Farm, Spendthrift Farm, and others in moving their horses from Baffert to other trainers.

Medina Spirit never finished off the board

Instead, Zedan stuck with Baffert as the Hall of Fame trainer helped write an enviable resume for a colt who didn’t come from a Thoroughbred blue-blood stallion. He was a product of Protonico out of the Brilliant Speed mare Mongolian Changa.

Breeder Gail Rice sold the yearling Medina Spirit for $1,000 at the 2019 OBS Winter Sale in Florida. Respected bloodstock agent and Santa Anita clocker Gary Young saw him at the 2020 OBS July sale and suggested Zedan purchase the 2-year-old, which he did for $35,000.

Given what Medina Spirit did on the track — $3,520,000 in career earnings in only 10 starts — “bargain” doesn’t do the transaction justice. Medina Spirit broke his maiden at first ask in a December 2020 Los Alamitos maiden special weight, then finished a strong second to Life Is Good in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes a month later.

They shall not pass epitomized Medina Spirit’s running style

Barely four weeks later, Medina Spirit won the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, turning aside Hot Rod Charlie and Roman Centurian with what became his trademark, gutsy running style. He refused to let either horse pass him coming down the stretch.

After a brief break for minor throat surgery, Medina Spirit finished second again to Life Is Good in the Grade 2 San Felipe in early March. He finished second to Rock Your World in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, then went to Churchill Downs as Baffert’s lone Derby horse.

Going off as a relative 13/1 afterthought, Medina Spirit went gate-to-wire for a thrilling half-length win over 26/1 Mandaloun, with Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality finishing a length back. Again, that race featured the colt’s refuse-to-lose running style. He was truly a horse who — once he seized the lead — refused to relinquish it.

After Baffert revealed the betamethasone positive, he sent Medina Spirit and chief lieutenant Jimmy Barnes to Pimlico for the Preakness. There, he finished a tired third by 5 1/2 lengths behind Rombauer and Midnight Bourbon. It was the only time in his 10 races Medina Spirit failed to hit the exacta.

Medina Spirit could win posthumous Eclipse

Victories in the ungraded Shared Belief and Grade 1 Awesome Again followed, the latter coming against older horses. Medina Spirit’s second by 2 3/4 lengths to Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic came with a career-best 114 Equibase Speed Figure. It closed the book on a 5-4-1 record in 10 races.

Even with more than a few East Coast media members saying they would vote against him because of their antipathy toward Baffert, Medina Spirit remains in the discussion to win the Eclipse Award as Champion 3-Year-Old. The case remains that he beat presumed favorite Essential Quality twice in the two biggest races of the year, the Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Baffert earlier said he targeted the Group 1 Saudi Cup in late February for Medina Spirit’s next race.