Rich Strike: The Underdog Kentucky Derby Win that Racing Needed
Updated: Oct 9, 2022
The Kentucky Derby is the most celebrated race in all of American horse racing. It is where the most precocious Thoroughbreds go to make a name for themselves because even if the winner never accomplishes anything else significant after wearing the garland of roses, their name is permanently etched in racing history.
The 2022 Kentucky Derby was the 148th in history and it was destined to be an unforgettable race. The betting public had chosen two tough horses to favor: Epicenter, a beautiful colt by Not This Time that had dominated the Derby Trail in Louisiana; and Zandon, a breathtaking colt by Upstart that charged from off the pace to win the Blue Grass Stakes (G1).
There were quite a few other horses who received their fair share of talk during the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby. The lightly raced Taiba was the third betting choice after his sensational win over fourth choice Messier in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). The Japanese-bred Crown Pride drew quite a bit of interest with his unique training methods. Mo Donegal, Cyberknife, White Abarrio, Smile Happy, and Charge It had plenty of backers too.
Very few people even mentioned the name “Rich Strike” in their Derby talks. He seemed to be a complete outsider, a horse who has no chance against these proven graded stakes winners. In fact, he wasn’t even in the race until Friday morning when the scratch of Ethereal Road made him eligible to run in the Kentucky Derby.
A field of 20 horses loaded into the starting gates on May 7th. It was a beautiful day in Louisville and the track was rated fast, perfect for Epicenter who would be racing near the front of the pack. The horses walked into line two at a time and everyone in the grandstand and infield held their breath for a perfect start from all. Rich Strike was the last to load, his red and white blinkers with a circled “R” slightly reminiscent of Seabiscuit, an underdog from years long past that wore red and white blinkers with an “H” placed inside a triangle.
When the gates flew open Rich Strike broke slightly outwards, but his jockey Sonny Leon was quick to correct him and guided him to settle behind horses in the very back of the pack. Meanwhile, Crown Pride and Summer Is Tomorrow charged for the lead and together set a blistering fast pace, one that was sure to ruin both of their chances at winning the race. This pace scenario looked to be perfect for Zandon, who sitting mid-pack and would make his run later in the race. Epicenter sat close to the leaders but far enough off the pace to reserve a little energy for later.
When the horses got to the far turn, Epicenter took the lead and Zandon came rallying towards him. The two met at the top of the stretch and began the battle that every racing fan had been waiting for; Epicenter refused to allow Zandon to pass him, but the Blue Grass winner was fighting hard, desperate to get past the Derby favorite. All eyes were on these two horses — there was hardly a soul who noticed Rich Strike and Sonny Leon weaving through horses who had been tired out by the fast pace set early in the race. It looked as though Epicenter would tough out Zandon to the wire, but just before they crossed the wire a dirt-covered Rich Strike emerged from the pack and passed both Epicenter and Zandon to win the Kentucky Derby.
[Video: Watch Rich Strike (#21) come from the back of the pack to win the Kentucky Derby]
Viewers both at the track and at home erupted with cheers. It was the most shocking result of all — the longest shot on the board, a horse dismissed at odds of 80-1, flew past Epicenter and Zandon to win the most prestigious race for three-year-old horses.
Even Rich Strike's team was shocked by the result. Trainer Eric Reed dropped to his knees in the paddock as he watched his horse come flying down the stretch. Owner Rick Dawson shared that sentiment. "What planet is this? I feel like I have been propelled somewhere. I'm not sure," Dawson of Red-TR Racing said after the race. "This is unbelievable. I asked my trainer up on the stage, I said, 'Are you sure this is not a dream? Because it can't be true.' He assured me this is real."
The win was unbelievable. And it was exactly what horse racing needed.
Rich Strike was bred by Calumet Farm. At one point in history, Calumet was the most prolific farm of them all. They bred a record 9 Kentucky Derby winners (Rich Strike is their 10th) and owned 8 Derby winners, including Triple Crown champions Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948). But they hadn’t owned a Derby winner since Forward Pass in 1968 and hadn’t bred one since Strike The Gold in 1991.
Upsetting the favorite is in Rich Strike’s blood. He is from the first crop of sire Keen Ice, a horse famously known for handing Triple Crown winner American Pharoah defeat in the Travers Stakes (G1). Keen Ice stands stud for $7,500 — a bargain compared to the stud fee of Kentucky Derby favorite Epicenter’s sire Not This Time ($75,000).
Interestingly, Rich Strike shares the same broodmare sire as another famous longshot Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird, who similarly skimmed the rail to win the 2009 run for the roses at odds of 50-1. Their dams are both sired by Smart Strike. Rich Strike's dam Gold Strike is a graded-stakes winner herself and had previously produced Grade 2 winner Llanarmon.
Rich Strike began his career at Ellis Park, finishing dead last in a field of 10 horses. He blew away his competition by 17 1/2 lengths in his next race at Churchill Downs, a $30,000 Maiden Claiming Race, in which he was claimed from Calumet Farm by trainer Eric Reed and owner Red TR-Racing. He didn’t win any of his next 5 races: he was 3rd in an Allowance at Keeneland, 5th in the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds, 3rd in the Leonatus Stakes at Turfway Park, and 4th in the John Battaglia Stakes at Turfway. A 3rd place finish in the Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) on Turfway’s synthetic surface earned him a few points towards a spot in the Kentucky Derby, but he would need horses to scratch from the race in order to get in and on paper he looked completely out of depth.
But as the saying goes, “horses can’t read the form” and with the scratch of Ethereal Road on the morning of May 6th and of also eligible Rattle N Roll, Rich Strike and his team were in the race.
It was the first time his trainer, owner, and jockey would be competing in the Kentucky Derby. Eric Reed had been training horses for a long time prior to Rich Strike’s Derby win, but almost left the game after a barn fire caused by a lightning strike tragically killed 23 of his horses six years ago.
But thanks to the support of the community, Reed stayed in racing and has now accomplished one of the greatest feats of all for Red-TR Racing.
Reed and Red-TR Racing did not only have faith in their horse but also in their jockey. Sonny Leon is a successful jockey at tracks like Belterra Park and had ridden Rich Strike in the last four of his 7 races leading up to the Kentucky Derby. He had never won a graded stakes race before and some owners would choose to put a “more accomplished” jockey aboard their horse in the Derby because of this. However, Richard Dawson of Red-TR Racing remained loyal to Leon.
“I would never, ever change at this point... I've watched Sonny ride a bunch,” Dawson told BloodHorse. “His courage, his smartness on the track, his athleticism. He's our kind of guy.”
If it hadn’t been for Leon’s bravery and quick thinking in maneuvering through the rapidly tiring field of horses, Rich Strike may not have won.
[Video: Watch the overhead view of Sonny Leon piloting Rich Strike to victory]
The race was not without controversy entirely; immediately after the race, Churchill Downs' head outrider Greg Blasi and his pony collected Rich Strike and Sonny Leon so Leon could give a post-race interview to NBC, something that happens every year. However, Rich Strike began biting both the outrider and his pony and caused quite the scene. People who are unfamiliar with racehorses and this sort of situation were confused about why the outrider seemed to be handling Rich Strike roughly and called for him to be fired from his job. However, trainer Eric Reed addressed the situation during an interview on the Today Show.
“The outrider's job at the end of the race is to help get the leading horse slowed down, and take him around and let him do the interviews,” Reed explained. “Well, Richie (Rich Strike), he was in 'killer mode,' he was gonna outrun every horse on the track. He had not had a horse, after the finish line, come over to him. So when he saw that pony coming his way, he thought he had another horse to beat and he was trying to run by it.”
“The man did his job: he reached out and grabbed ahold of the horse and it made the horse mad,” Reed continued. “He didn't know that he was trying to help him, he thought he was supposed to outrun that horse, and he bit the guy's leg terribly. He bit his arm, a couple really bad bites. The horse is not a mean horse, he just was in race mode and he didn't understand why they were grabbing him to slow him down. That man saved my horse from injury, because had he got up in the air and lost my rider, he could have gotten loose. I'm sorry for the injuries he sustained.”
Clearly, Blasi was doing everything he could to protect the Derby winner, his jockey, and every other horse and human on the track. With that situation cleared up, Rich Strike’s Kentucky Derby win can now be seen as nothing but good.
Rich Strike’s win in the Kentucky Derby was exactly what horse racing needed. The sport’s image had been tarnished by deaths, disqualifications, and drug violations by big-name trainers. Rich Strike’s win was like something from a storybook; a horse once claimed for $30,000, lost his last five races, and was the longest shot on the board, came soaring from the back of the pack to run down the two race favorites with a jockey who had never won a graded stakes race and a trainer who almost left the game entirely after a tragedy.
Photos of touching moments between Rich Strike with his team, people like his groom Jerry Dixon Jr. and Reed’s retired assistant trainer Sid Scott, have shown just how much this win has meant to the entire team.
"I'm happy for my crew," Reed told WDRB.com. “Those guys have gone to the smallest tracks. They've worked in conditions after our accident and storm years ago that most people would have never wanted to do again. They put in the hard time without ever getting a pat on the back from anybody but myself. You know, we don't have the big horses that this happens to. So I was so proud when they got to make the walk yesterday. To me that fulfilled the bucket list for my gang, and they were going to get to make the walk that they watch everybody else do every year. And matter of fact, I told one of them, 'Look at that crowd. Usually, we're up there watching them. And this year, they're watching you.' So a lot of this was for them."
Rich Strike was the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby after being claimed. He was the 2nd longest shot to win in the race’s history, beaten only by Donerail who won at odds of 91–1 all the way back in 1913. This win proved that a horse doesn’t have to cost a million dollars and a team doesn’t have to have years of experience winning big races under their belt to reach the highest of highs in racing.
Thanks to Rich Strike and his team, horsemen at small tracks around the country have a renewed sense of optimism and inspiration and the sport of horse racing is finally in the headlines again for a good reason.
[Video: Watch Real Players Inside The Backstretch interview Rich Strike's team after their big win]
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