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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – On another first Saturday in May, the beauty of America’s oldest sport battled neck and neck with her impropriety as a colt named Medina Spirit elegantly stood up to a determined challenge from Mandaloun .

They moved in tandem like four-legged ballet dancers – effortlessly, beautifully. No one here who loved thoroughbred racing could catch their breath after Medina Spirit crossed the finish line half a length ahead of the second place horse and comfortably ahead of Hot Rod Charlie and the favorite. Essential Quality pre-race.

With the colt’s victory, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won his seventh Kentucky Derby, overtaking Ben Jones, who collected his rose covers in 1938, 1941, 1944, 1948, 1949 and 1952.

It was a victory marked with an asterisk, as exploits in horse racing so often do.

Much of the news Baffert has been making lately has not been good. Arkansas regulators last month confirmed a ruling that a banned substance was found in two of Baffert’s horses, but decided to reduce his suspension to a fine.

Baffert is the dominant and most questioned competitor in his sport, which recently led to the passage of federal legislation that would oblige the United States Anti-Doping Agency – the organization that upholds law and order in Olympic sports – to watch horse racing.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Baffert said moments after his record-breaking victory. “I’m so blessed to bring these heavy horses here, and this little horse has a big heart.

The bittersweet aftertaste of Medina Spirit’s victory threatened to eclipse the feat of colt rider Johnny Velazquez. At 49, the Hall of Fame jockey hadn’t exactly been left for dead, but he was believed to be pulling the nuances in the twilight of his career.

Is that so?

It was his fourth Derby triumph and, in a timeline shattered by a coronavirus pandemic that has beaten us all, his second in nine months.

The pandemic forced organizers to stage the 2020 Derby last September in front of empty seats, but America’s biggest horse race was back.

Kind of. Mint juleps flowed as exuberant hats and pocket squares floated across the grandstand and clubhouse of this famous racecourse. But there were fewer of them all: Churchill Downs was a third of its 150,000-strong capacity, especially earlier in the day when it felt like a club long after the last call.

There were also new faces here, which promised to bring new and more favorable attention to horse racing. Kendrick Carmouche, in his first Kentucky Derby at 37, was trying to become the first black jockey in 119 years to win the race. His appearance on a long shot named Bourbonic added to the long history of black pilots in the sport: Oliver Lewis won the first Derby in 1875, and 15 of the race’s first 28 editions were won by black jockeys, the most recently Jimmy Winkfield in 1902..

Carmouche and Bourbonic finished 13th.

The hitherto undefeated essential quality promised excitement and a new lens for watching sports.

Until he didn’t.

Gray son of Tapit, Essential Quality came here with a screaming CV, as the defending 2-year-old champion and owner of a 5-for-5 record. His trainer, Brad Cox, is from Louisville who just finished the season. best year of his career, having won four Breeders’ Cup races and being named champion coach for 2020.

Essential Quality rider Luis Saez is one of the best young jockeys in the country and was seeking redemption after memorable guiding a colt named Maximum Security through the finish line here in 2019, only to be disqualified for almost toppling a rival. horse and slow down the momentum of others.

The following year, Maximum Security trainer Jason Servis was among more than 27 people indicted by federal prosecutors in a massive scheme to secretly dope horses and deceive the betting public.

When it comes to controversy, however, doping and disqualifications have come a long way behind questions surrounding the owner of Essential Quality, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.

Sheikh Mohammed has spent massive amounts of money in central Kentucky to build a breeding and racing operation, but had failed to win the Derby in 11 previous starts. While the horse racing people wanted to talk about his money and perseverance, human rights lawyers at home and abroad focused on the role of the Sheikh in the disappearance of Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, l ‘one of his daughters.

Sheikha Latifa has been seen in numerous videos saying her father is holding her captive in Dubai and that she fears for her life. “He only cares about himself and his ego,” she says.

The United Nations have demanded that Sheikh Mohammed produce proof that his daughter is still alive, and a group from the University of Louisville law school has filed a complaint with the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, asking it to exclude the Sheikh and Essential Quality from the Derby. .

The request was quickly rejected for countless reasons that could be seen on a pastoral walk through the heart of bluegrass territory where the Sheikh gathered farms and fast horses.

Essential Quality was fourth in a game. Saez did not get his redemption. Cox had the double grief of seeing his other horse Mandaloun come up short.

And, at the end of the day, a sport that both transfixes and repels has done both.

“It never gets old,” said Velazquez, rightly one of the happiest men in horse racing after his victory.

Yeah, well, too often.

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