Rich Strike posts Kentucky Derby shocker for the ages

Rich Strike
Rich Strike won the Kentucky Derby. Photo Coady Photography-Churchill Downs.

“I’m so excited to ride the KY Derby tomorrow,” jockey Sonny Leon tweeted Friday afternoon. “Thank you Lord for blessing me like this.”

Turns out the Lord wasn’t even close to done blessing the Venezuelan rider.

Leon and his mount, Rich Strike, scored one of the all-time Kentucky Derby shockers Saturday, rallying from well back to win by a length in 2:02.61 for 1 ¼ miles. Rich Strike, off at 80-1, paid $163.60 to win.

Heck, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the field. Rich Strike originally was on the outside looking in, number 21 in a 20-horse field. But Friday morning, trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owners Julie Gilbert and Aaron Sones made what turned out be a pretty consequential decision: they scratched Ethereal Road, also a longshot, which opened the door to Rich Strike’s participation.

Just your typical Derby story: horse claimed for $30,000, winless in five starts since breaking his maiden, left out of the Derby, draws in at the last possible moment, and wins. Ho hum.

It was the first Kentucky Derby starter – let alone winner – for both Leon and trainer Eric Reed.

“We really always felt like if we just get in, we got a shot,” said winning owner Rick Dawson, who races as RED-TR Racing LLC. “We proved it today.”

Bluegrass Stakes winner Zandon and Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter had taken much of the public’s attention and were installed as the favorite and second choice on the morning line. And in upper stretch – after Summer Is Tomorrow and Messier had thrown down grueling early fractions – the two top runners hooked up and seemed destined to settle things between themselves.

But Leon had Rich Strike, a colt by Keen Ice, on the move. Towards the rear of the field rounding the turn, Rich Strike began to pick off horses, dived down to the rail, came out one path to avoid a faltering rival, and powered home inside his more well-fancied rivals.

Almost exactly the way trainer Eric Reed had hoped it would play out.

“Get a good break and work over to the inside,” Reed said Friday, when asked for his preferred scenario. “Start picking them up midway on the backstretch and then pass them all before the finish line!”

The race marked Leon’s fifth consecutive outing aboard Rich Strike. Their previous best finish had been a third-place result in the Leonatus Stakes at Turfway Park and another in that track’s Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks.

But Reed gave the credit for the upset to his rider.

“I knew the horse could do it if he could find his way through the traffic,” Reed said. “That’s why I had Sonny on him. He got us here. He knows the horse. And we knew this horse could get the distance. It was just, could he get through the company? And he gave him just the greatest ride that I’ve ever seen.”

“I know my horse, and I knew I had a horse for this race,” said Leon. “When we were in the last five furlongs, I could feel in my horse that he was tough.”

Reed and Dawson had claimed Rich Strike for $30,000 out of his maiden triumph. He won that day by 17 lengths, but he hadn’t visited the winner’s circle since. On the other hand, he did show improving form, with four consecutive improving Beyer speed figures.

“We’ve never entered a race that we didn’t think we could win, ever,” Dawson said. “That’s just what Eric and I have always talked about: we don’t do it. If they’re not ready to win, then we’ll take them back and train them some more and figure out where to put them.”

Epicenter finished second, while Zandon was third. Simplification and Mo Donegal rounded out the top five.

Once it appeared his horse would be excluded from the Derby, Reed said, the plan was to aim at the Belmont Stakes June 11.

Now, though the Triple Crown beckons, and that road runs through Baltimore and the Preakness.

“I think [his Preakness chances] are real good,” Reed said. “This horse is just getting good, and he’s been getting better every race.”

NOTES A pair of Midlantic-breds didn’t run poorly in two Churchill Downs stakes, but neither was able to get the money. In the Derby City Distaff Pennsylvania-bred Just the One went off the 3-2 favorite and showed uncharacteristic speed under jockey Flavien Prat. But after leading for the opening six furlongs of the seven-furlong test, she tired to be third, beaten three lengths and change by winner Obligatory… Maryland-bred Aloha West had a similar outcome two races later in the Churchill Downs Stakes. The winner of last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Aloha West, with Jose Ortiz up,  wasn’t far back early, but no one was able to go with eventual winner Jackie’s Warrior, who led throughout en route to a four-length win. Aloha West finished third, five lengths behind the winner…