8 months since the last Derby, here it is again on its traditional day, with more of the usual fanfare, the people in hats, the song, and the roar of the crowd that so many referenced as being glad to hear again over the course of the day at Churchill Downs.

It looked to be a day of exciting races as so often occurs when horses of a top caliber show up to pit their ability against one another. Domestic Spending and Colonel Liam showcased this to perfection in the Old Bourbon Forester Turf Classic. It was particularly stirring to see Domestic Spending charge down the track from off the pace to try to collar Colonel Liam, and all the determination the former showed with that rally. Review of the photo finish, as the two appeared to finish nearly on equal terms, revealed they had and it was a dead heat.

Looking ahead to the Derby, a lot of the talk surrounded Juvenile champion Essential Quality and his undefeated race record. Medina Spirit, Baffert’s horse who didn’t get the share of attention one of the trainer’s horses typically would (in fact, when I heard who his sire was about a week before the race I had to look him up as the name didn’t ring a bell), took the lead from the start and never relinquished it. Mandaloun, Hot Rod Charlie, and Essential Quality did their best to catch him but they could not. However, the thrilling part was how close to one another they all were. While Essential Quality finished fourth, the video shows better than reading such a result would how close he was to the winner, even as he ran wide for his rush to the wire down a good part of the homestretch. Mandaloun, who finished second, and Hot Rod Charlie, were so close they seemed to be practically breathing down the winner’s neck and Essential Quality was so near behind those two that he seemed to draw even with Medina Spirit’s saddlecloth in the first jump past the wire.

This is not to knock the winner’s effort at all. He clearly was the best, to hold off such strong challenges after leading from the start. I had heard he sold for $35,000 as a two-year-old but did not know he sold for $1,000 as a yearling, garnering only one bid to bring that price. Interestingly, too, hearing more about Protonico after his son’s Derby victory, I saw his recent crops had numbered 20 horses or less each. Talk about a dark horse – one bid at his first trip through an auction ring, small group of progeny of his age from his same crop by his sire, and wins the Derby!

Seeing how jockey John Velazquez won wire-to-wire, suggested echoes of Authentic’s victory the previous year, and perhaps he did use a similar playbook of knowing the horse was best suited to win in that manner and followed that blueprint to back-to-back Derby success.

And another anecdote about Medina Spirit that seems more funny now than it did at the time for being such a unique introduction to the future Derby winner is when I and my friend saw him during morning training encounter the opposum, such an unexpected sight! But he made an impression on me that morning, not just because of the possum incident being so unusual, but because of his demeanor and his action on the track. He seemed to take everything in stride, be unflappable, and that certainly bodes well for a horse to have success.

I didn’t attend this year’s Derby as I did from 2008 – 2019, a streak I hoped to keep going until I was physically unable to attend, but we know how best-laid plans can go. I accept that, for the pandemic containment meant more than being at races even as much as I longed to get back, but I will still always have a funny personal memory about this year’s Derby winner!

And credit to Oaks winner Malathaat too. She is as top-notch as her Ashland win showed, and it will be interesting to see if her connections attempt the Preakness or Belmont with her as they mentioned doing.