LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The sport of kings. haha!
Thoroughbred breeds have increasingly surrendered to the sheikhs and princes, the hedge fund wizards and industrialists, the fat cats who could loot their vaults and pay anything to get a royally-bred horse that they hoped would fill a hole in the wind could run.
But that wasn’t the story on Saturday’s 148th Kentucky Derby. Not after an 80-1 long shot named Rich Strike, who didn’t earn his spot on the grid until Friday in America’s greatest horse race, seemed to follow Moses’ path through the Red Sea to a three-quarter victory that proved impossible.
When Rich Strike hit the wire low and long as if trying to sneak past a monitor in the hall, most Churchill Downs swells searched their programs to see who was wearing the 21 saddle cloth. Demanding horse fans everywhere turned to Google to meet the jockey Sonny Leon and the trainer Eric Reed.
What they found was a colt that had one win on his resume and was picked up cheaply in a race with a $30,000 claim. Then there was the jockey, who had completed six races on Friday at Belterra Park, a minor league circuit in Ohio. And finally, there was the trainer, who hyperventilated Friday morning when he was told that a colt named Ethereal Road had scratched out of the Derby and opened a gate for him to put a horse in the Kentucky Derby for the first time.
“I’m going to pass out, I’m so happy,” Reed said, trying to wipe the surprise from his face. “This is why everyone is doing this. This is the most incredible day ever.”
Rich Strike, who completed the mile and a quarter in 2 minutes and 2.61 seconds, rewarded his believers with a whopping $163.60 on a $2 bet to win. It was the second biggest disruption in the history of the race, after only Donerail in 1913 paying $184.90.
Uplifting stories are hard to find in America’s oldest sport these days. Bob Baffert, who trained Medina Spirit – last year’s Derby winner until he was out – was not there, having been sidelined by a 90-day suspension over Medina Spirit’s failed post-race drug test.
But his horses do. Baffert’s Messier and Taiba were handed over to a former assistant, Tim Yaakteen, so the ghost of the white-haired trainer hovered beneath the Twin Spires.
The other contenders had blue-blooded ownership and were conditioned by gold-plated trainers. Steve Asmussen, the winningest trainer in North America – 9,731 and more – saddled Epicenter, and four-time Eclipse Award champion trainer Chad Brown had high hopes for Zandon.
For a dozen seconds or so into the deep end, it sure looked like one of them was going to take his first Derby win. Their horses ran down the trail together, two shadows trying to escape the sun.
But Leon and Rich Strike didn’t feel like it. Leon knew he had a horse with a powerful engine and iron lungs. The colt’s owner, Rick Dawson, has been in the sport long enough, and with an enduring respect for it, that he swore he would never put any of his horses in a place he could be ashamed of.
Sure, Rich Strike, Keen Ice’s son, last won in September. And he didn’t make himself a world-beater in his subsequent races, finishing a well-beaten third in his last outing, a stakes race at another second-tier track, Turfway Park, 90 miles down the highway in Florence, Kentucky.
In fact, most thought Rich Strike even performed so well, largely because the race was on “plastic,” the derogatory name for the safer synthetic surfaces barely embraced by the American racing establishment. But Dawson knew his horse.
“We talked about this a year and a half ago,” he says. “We talked about never putting in a horse if it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t fit. And we just knew we had a chance because every time he went longer, he got better. And today we go to a mile and a quarter and he just kept going.”
Both Dawson and Reed gave credit for a cunning drive through Leon, a Venezuelan, who looked like he had his teeth cut open in Saratoga instead of Ohio’s Thistledown. To put Leon’s drive and place in the horse racing hierarchy into perspective, only 10 jockeys won more races than in 2021.
Sixty-five of them, however, earned more than he did.
Leon led Rich Strike almost 90 degrees out of the gate, from the 20th path in. Then they rode the rails like a bunch of bums.
Leon and his foal were in no rush as they followed 17 other horses chasing a poor early pace into the far corner.
“No one knows my horse like I know my horse,” Leon said.
Leon began leading his horse through the pack, zigzagging like someone late for work on a crowded Manhattan sidewalk. Ahead of them, Epicenter and Zandon looked each other in the eye for what would become a duel with the wire in the middle of the lane.
“I had to wait for the piece and that’s what I did,” Leon said, “and then the railing opened.”
Both Brown and Asmussen leaned towards the circle of winners. One of them would definitely end up there. Instead, Leon and Rich Strike rocketed past them.
“I was beaten by the horse that just came in,” Asmussen said.
Brown was momentarily abandoned and sighed, “He just snuck into our insides.”
Reed, for his part, swooned as he watched.
Leon had been on Rich Strike for the past four starts. He was as much the colt’s professor as a passenger.
“He taught him between the horses,” Reed said. “I didn’t think I would be able to win per se, but I knew if he got it they would know who he was when the race was over.”
Yes they do. Rich Strike is the Kentucky Derby Champion.