By Rory Carroll
(Reuters) -Medina Spirit stormed to victory in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday to give trainer Bob Baffert a record seventh win in the $3 million Run for the Roses.
Under jockey John Velazquez, Medina Spirit jumped out to an early lead and fended off challenges down the stretch in front of 51,838 fans in Louisville, Kentucky, in the largest U.S. sporting event since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The win was Hall of Fame jockey Velazquez's fourth in the first race of the Triple Crown, which returned to its usual spot - the first Saturday in May - after being pushed to September last year due to the pandemic.
Baffert had downplayed his "little" horse's chances heading into the race and was stunned to see the dark bay 3-year-old maintain his speed for the duration of the 1-1/4-mile (2-km) trip around the fast dirt track.
"This little horse, he's always shown that he is an overachiever," Baffert said of Medina Spirit, who was purchased for $1,000 as a yearling, resold for a mere $35,000 in 2020, and is owned by Zedan Racing Stables.
"His heart is bigger than his body and when he turned for home, something told me that he doesn't know how much he cost, he wasn't going to let anybody pass him."
Velazquez, 49, said the emotion that comes with winning "the most exciting two minutes in sports" has not diminished and praised the 12-1 horse.
"Every time I asked him to give more, he kept fighting on," he said.
"You couldn't ask for more of a horse. When you ride a horse like this who is competitive, you can't ask for anything else."
Longshot Mandaloun was second, 5-1 Hot Rod Charlie was third and 5/2 favorite Essential Quality was forced to settle for fourth after taking a wide turn heading into the stretch.
Medina Spirit paid $26.20 to win, $12 to place and $7.60 to show.
Baffert, one of the best known trainers in the world, has come under scrutiny from state horse racing regulators in recent years after some of the horses in his stables tested positive for banned substances.
Saturday's Kentucky Derby marked the first time all 19 participants ran without first being injected with Lasix since the drug became commonly used in the sport in the mid-1970s.
Lasix is used to prevent bleeding in horses' lungs, which can occur during strenuous exercise. But it is also a diuretic that causes horses to shed pounds through urination before a race, which can make them faster but can also lead to dehydration.
The use of drugs in North American horse racing has been criticized after the high-profile deaths of horses at tracks like Southern California's Santa Anita Park in recent years.
None of the three Triple Crown races will allow the use of the drug this year.
The second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, is scheduled to be held on May 15. The third and final race, the Belmont Stakes, is set for June 5.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Jonathan Oatis)