Spendthrift Farm general manager Ned Toffey stood beside the big bay colt before him on the Churchill Downs backstretch Saturday morning and, as has become the norm of late, was suitably impressed.
Despite the fact his colt had just put in an energetic gallop beneath the Twin Spires in preparation for what will be his third race in five weeks, indications of fatigue were outwardly nonexistent, buried in a robust frame that seemingly has swelled to grander proportions in recent weeks.
"My wife had taken a bunch of pictures of him in the paddock of the Blue Grass Stakes (on April 12) and there were a couple where I was thinking, this looks like somebody's riding horse here, he's got a little belly on him," Toffey said of Spendthrift Farm's Medal Count. "He's a strong horse and ... he still has plenty of flesh on him."
Medal Count's physical form has never been in question. Getting his mind in sync with his body has been. With both finally coming together, Medal Count might be making the fastest transformation into a Kentucky Derby contender this year after what he has achieved this month.
Off the board in three earlier tries against graded stakes company, the Dale Romans-trainee justified his conditioner's unwavering faith in him when he won the Grade III Transylvania Stakes on the opening day of the Keeneland Spring Meet on April 4.
Romans then went old school by wheeling Medal Count back eight days later to a runner-up finish in the Grade I Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, an effort that immediately had the Eclipse Award-winning trainer giving the hard sell to Spendthrift owner B. Wayne Hughes about going to the first leg of the Triple Crown.
While so much racing in a short span might raise eyebrows now, such tactics were the norm for years. The Derby Trial, held one week before the first Saturday in May, was viewed as a common Kentucky Derby prep race from the 1920s until about the 1970s, when more time between starts started becoming a growing trend.
Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner, not only won the Derby Trial en route to his triumph in the Kentucky Derby, he also captured the Jersey Stakes in the weeks between his victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
"Absolutely, it used to be the norm. And he's the type of horse that can handle it," Romans said of the quick turnaround. "If you go look at his numbers (Ragozin Sheets performance ratings), he actually improved in a week's time. So really it did him good.
"He had to figure out how good he was and had to have confidence in himself. And he's put it all together now."
Medal Count's ability to handle the Churchill Downs dirt will be more of a question than his three races in rapid succession.
In his two most recent starts on dirt — the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita and the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream — Medal Count finished 11th and fifth, respectively.
The large-bodied colt did break his maiden on the dirt at Ellis Park last Sept. 1, a race that provided some key lessons toward what he will face in a 20-horse field. In the stretch of that victory, Medal Count got bumped and almost turned sideways in the lane, but he responded by exploding through a hole to win by 61/4 lengths.
"We wanted him to get some education and he probably got more than I expected that day," Romans said. "But you can see how he accelerated once he got open. I thought he ran big and he handles the dirt fine. He trains over it every day."
The brilliance that Medal Count showed in that first outing is why Romans was steadfast that the colt would one day face the best of his generation. And as in that first race, he has bulled his way through at just the right moment.
"Dale made the really good point in that he said, this is that Roberto (sire line), this is that type of line that gets big, hardy horses," Toffey said. "This is not like some of these other lines that are maybe not as hearty a stock but are quick and brilliant."