Breeder of Kentucky Derby winner reaches horseracing zenith

Gail Rice, the breeder of 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, feeds her horses at her farm in Citra, Fla. on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. Rice bred Medina Spirit and sold him for $1,000 with no reserve in the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company Jan. 2019 sale. She sold him for no reserve because she was going through a divorce and needed the money. Now Rice is ecstatic because the horse she bred won the Kentucky Derby. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2021.

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Posted May 6, 2021 | By Carlos Medina,

Gail Rice, the breeder of 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, prepares to feed her horses in Citra on Wednesday. Rice bred Medina Spirit and sold him for $1,000 with no reserve in the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company in 2019 sale. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]

She likely won’t see a penny from Medina Spirit’s win at the 147th Kentucky Derby on May 1, but for longtime Marion County horsewoman Gail Rice it doesn’t matter.

“This is why we’re in this business,” she said. “Money, I can spend. I can have this forever. My kids and grandkids can say, ‘My mother and my grandmother bred a Kentucky Derby winner.’”

And she is relishing every moment.

“It’s just so much fun. Everybody wants to hear about it,” Rice said.

And it’s quite a story that started some four years ago with Rice picking stallion Protonico to breed with her mare Mongolian Changa. The offspring, she hoped, would be a serviceable racehorse she could run under her flag.

But then life threw a curveball. She and her husband, Bobby Jones, separated, and she had to make some tough choices.

“I didn’t want to sell, but I had to reduce my numbers,” she said.

Medina Spirit, at nine months old, didn’t make the cut.

“He was a beautiful baby. But he was going to get bigger and stronger,” said Rice. “I really didn’t need to put that onto myself.”

The colt was not bred for the commercial sales market, so he got little attention at the 2019 Ocala Breeders’ Sales winter mixed sale.

Rice put him up for auction without a reserve price and he sold for just $1,000.

“I didn’t think he would go that low. I was hoping $10,000,” Rice said.

She lost money on that sale, but two other horses she sold at the auction made up for the loss.

“That’s how this business works,” she said.

She also gave away the mare but retained a 10% interest, which she collected after Medina Spirit won his first graded race in January at Santa Anita. She sold for an undisclosed amount to Taylor Made, the Kentucky breeding operation where Protonico once stood.

After leaving Rice, Medina Spirit went on to sell again to his current owner Zedan Racing Stables, who gave him his name.

Some have asked Rice if she regrets selling the horse. She doesn’t. She feels the journey was part of his success.

If she had raced the colt, he would not have gone to Hall-of-Fame trainer Bob Baffert and would not have trained along some of the top horses in the country.

“It was divine intervention,” she said.

His first breath

Rice remembers the April day Medina Spirit was born.

She was staying at her son’s farm in Sparr when the mare went into labor.

Horse births can be complicated and physically exerting. Medina Spirit’s was no different.

It took Gail, her son Kevin and his wife Emily helping to get the baby out.

“We all pulled him out,” Rice said. “After he won the Derby, I was yelling, ‘I pulled him out of his mama!’”

After he was out, she cradled him and cleared his airway.

“He took his first breath in my arms,” Rice said.

As he grew, Rice saw his potential.

“He was a beautiful baby, a great mover, and personality. He had the look in his eye. I always said he was going to be a runner. I wouldn’t have said Kentucky Derby winner. The pedigree said he wouldn’t be, but the horses always prove you wrong,” she said.

Gail Rice, the breeder of 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit, reacts after the colt won the race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky on May 1. [Courtesy Gail Rice]

Derby Day 

Rice traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to watch the Derby. She was there with her daughter Taylor Ortiz and her two grandchildren.

She was already in rare company having a horse run in a Derby, but had no idea she would join an even more select club of Kentucky Derby-winning breeders. Just 147 other horses dating back to the 19th century can claim the honor.

“I have never been that excited about a horse race. I just can’t describe it,” she said.

As Medina Spirit crossed the finish line, Rice exploded in joy.

“I started running and yelling. It was so happy,” she said. “I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to know that a Kentucky Derby winner took his first breath in your arms.”

The next morning, Rice was able to spend some time with Medina Spirit in the barn.

“He was bright-eyed and ready to play. He looked fresh,” she said.

She was able to pet him and kissed him goodbye.

The colt will try for the second jewel of the Triple Crown on May 15 in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

She hopes to be there to represent all the small breeders that strive to breed the best horses they can afford.

“It’s showing people that a Derby winner can come from any farm. It’s why we play it with small pocketbooks. There’s been millions spent by some that never get this done,” Rice said.

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