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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A knave competed in the Sport of Kings, and instantly became one

Rich Strike, right, winner of the 148th Kentucky Derby, was in the field only because another horse was scratched.

By Joe Drape

The Sport of Kings. Ha!

Thoroughbred races have increasingly surrendered to the sheikhs and princes, the hedge fund wizards and industrialists, the fat cats who could plunder their vaults and pay whatever it took to secure a regally bred horse who, they hoped, could run a hole in the wind.

But that was not the story Saturday in the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. Not after an 80-1 long shot named Rich Strike, who did not even earn his spot in the starting gate in America’s greatest horse race until Friday, seemed to follow Moses’ path through the Red Sea to a three-quarter length victory that had appeared impossible.

When Rich Strike hit the wire low and long as if he were trying to sneak past a hall monitor, most of the Churchill Downs swells searched their programs to see who wore the 21 saddlecloth. Discerning horse fans everywhere hit Google to make the acquaintance of jockey Sonny León and trainer Eric Reed.

What they found was a colt that had one victory on his résumé and had been picked up on the cheap in a $30,000 claiming race. Then there was the jockey, who had ridden six races Friday at Belterra Park, a minor league track in Ohio. And finally there was the trainer, who had hyperventilated Friday morning when he was notified that a colt named Ethereal Road had scratched from the Derby, opening a gate for him to place 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 astonishment from his face. “This is the reason everybody does this. This is the most unbelievable day ever possible.”

Rich Strike, who covered 1 1/4 mile in 2 minutes, 2.61 seconds, rewarded his believers with $163.60 on a $2 bet to win. It was the second-biggest upset in the race’s history, behind Donerail in 1913, which paid $184.90.

Uplifting stories have been hard to come by in America’s oldest sport these days. Bob Baffert, who trained Medina Spirit — last year’s Derby winner, until he wasn’t — was not here, having been sidelined by a 90-day suspension because of Medina Spirit’s failed post-race drug test.

But his horses were. Baffert’s Messier and Taiba were handed off to a former assistant, Tim Yakteen, so the ghost of the white-haired trainer hovered beneath the Twin Spires.

The other contenders had blue-blood ownership and were conditioned by gold-plated trainers. Steve Asmussen, the winningest trainer in North America — 9,731 and counting — saddled Epicenter, and four-time Eclipse Award champion trainer Chad Brown had high hopes for Zandon.

For a dozen seconds or so in the deep stretch, it looked as if one of them was going to take down his first Derby victory. Their horses bounded down the lane together, two shadows trying to escape the sun.

But León and Rich Strike were having none of it. León knew he had a horse that had a powerful motor and iron lungs. The colt’s owner, Rick Dawson, has been in the sport long enough, and with an abiding respect for it, that he vowed never to put one of his horses in a spot where he could be embarrassed.

Sure, Rich Strike, the son of Keen Ice, last won in September. And he did not stamp himself a world beater in his subsequent races, finishing a well-beaten third in his last outing, a stakes race at another second-level circuit, Turfway Park, 90 miles up the highway in Florence, Kentucky.

In fact, most thought Rich Strike performed even that well largely because the race was on “plastic,” the derogatory name for the safer synthetic surfaces that have been barely embraced by the U.S. racing establishment. But Dawson knew his horse.

“We talked about this a year and a half ago,” he said. “We talked about never putting a horse in if it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t fit. And we just knew that we had a shot 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 to a crafty ride by León, a Venezuelan, who looked as if he had cut his teeth in Saratoga rather than Ohio’s Thistledown. To put León’s drive and place in horse racing’s hierarchy into perspective, only 10 jockeys won more races than he did in 2021. Sixty-five of them, however, made more money than he did.

León guided Rich Strike almost 90 degrees out of the gate, going from the 20th path to the inside. Then they rode the rail like a couple of hobos.

León and his colt were unhurried as they followed 17 other horses chasing a wicked early pace into the far turn.

“Nobody knows my horse like I know my horse,” León said.

León started guiding his horse through the pack, zigzagging like someone late for work on a busy Manhattan sidewalk. Ahead of them, Epicenter and Zandon looked each other in the eye for what was going to be a duel to the wire in the middle of the track.

“I had to wait until the stretch, and that’s what I did,” León said, “and then the rail opened up.”

Both Brown and Asmussen were leaning toward the winners’ circle. One of them, surely, was going to end up there. Instead, León and Rich Strike flashed past them like a bottle rocket.

“I got beat by the horse that just got in,” Asmussen said.

Brown was equally forlorn, sighing, “He just snuck up our inside.”

Reed, for his part, was swooning as he watched.

León had been on Rich Strike for the past four starts. He was the colt’s professor as much as passenger.

“He taught him to go between horses,” Reed said. “I didn’t think I could win, necessarily, but I knew if he got it, they’d know who he was when the race was over.”

Yes, they do. Rich Strike is the Kentucky Derby champion.

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