One of the most revealing day-after-Derby comments Sunday came from a trainer forever upbeat about his horses but who seldom goes out on a limb about any of them.
After running his first two starters in the race, Brad Cox shucked his normally cautious approach and said he ran the best horse in the 147th Kentucky Derby. Although Mandaloun ran a half-length back in second to winner Medina Spirit, Cox elaborated on previously unbeaten Essential Quality, beaten one length when fourth as the $2.90-t0-1 favorite.
"Not to take anything away from the top three," said the 41-year-old Cox, a Louisville native who grew up near Churchill Downs, "but he was the best horse yesterday."
Third was Hot Rod Charlie, trained by two-time Derby winner Doug O'Neill and coming off a Grade 2 victory in the Louisiana Derby, at 1 3/16 miles the longest Derby prep.
Essential Quality, Cox said, took the worst of it with a bumpy start from post 14 and a wide trip under jockey Luis Saez. He contended that Essential Quality traveled 68 feet more than jockey John Velazquez on Medina Spirit, breaking from post eight.
"Listen, some people may not agree with that," Cox said. "He ran a huge race. I was very proud of his effort. When you give up 68 feet, you do that math."
Since a length is generally considered to be eight to nine feet, Essential Quality might have conceded seven to eight lengths of ground.
"That's a good bit to me," Cox said. "It looked like two jumps past the wire he was third to me. But the bottom line is he was fourth best at a mile and a quarter yesterday. It's just he lost a lot of ground around both turns."
Medina Spirit, lightly regarded for even a Bob Baffert-trained stakes winner, gave the Hall of Famer his record seventh Derby victory and second straight. It was the fourth race win for Velazquez, who put Medina Spirit on the lead as he did stablemate Authentic last year in the first September Derby.
Cox said Essential Quality, who won Oaklawn's Grade 3 Southwest Feb. 27 in his seasonal debut and entered the Derby with a 5-0 record, and Mandaloun may oppose Medina Spirit in the May 15 Preakness. Baffert, with a record eight Preakness wins but second with Authentic in its first October running, may enter a second horse, Oaklawn's Grade 2 Rebel winner Concert Tour.
"He worked well this morning," Baffert said of Concert Tour, clocking six furlongs in 1:00.60 at Churchill Downs, where horses trained although the track was closed for racing. "We'll sit down and talk to (co-owner Gary) West. He wants to have his horses develop and not get in a rush to do things. We know he's a really good horse. We'll see how he is next week. I really can't make a call right now."
After what the trainer called a puzzling performance when third in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby April 10, the colt's first defeat, Concert Tour was removed from Derby consideration. Medina Spirit proved Baffert's only Derby starter although considered inferior by some to Concert Tour and injured stablemate Life is Good.
Baffert was pleasantly surprised with Medina Spirit, the first Derby starter for new sire Protonico, a son of Giant's Causeway. Medina Spirit's biggest win previously came in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, named for the late owner of Baffert's 1997 Derby winner, Silver Charm, and surprise 1999 Derby winner Charismatic, trained by Wayne Lukas.
"He's got a great mind on him," Baffert said. "He showed us another year that we didn't know he had yesterday. Coming in here, I thought everything had to go perfect for him. We made the lead pretty easily for him. The other speed horse (Rock Your World) didn't break. That's the thing about the Derby. You've got to get the trip."
Cox mulled how the race might have unfolded had Caddo River, a speed horse he trains for Arkansas horseman John Ed Anthony, had run. A stakes winner at Oaklawn whose sire, Hard Spun, finished second in the 2007 Derby, Caddo River was taken out of consideration because of a fever.
"It crossed my mind last night," Cox said. "They might have switched it up front. But I can't take anything away from the winner. He did all the dirty work and kept rolling. He ran a big race. He ran huge."
Caddo River, Cox said, remains a Preakness contender: "We'll get a little bit of a line tomorrow morning after he works to see if (the Preakness) is something we're going to do or not."
Last year's Eclipse Award-winning trainer when his horses won four Breeders' Cup races, Cox gained another Preakness hopeful when Fulsome took Saturday's $300,000 Oaklawn Stakes. Warrant, also trained by Cox, ran second in the nine-furlong race that anchored the closing-day card in Hot Springs.