No-one believed Rich Strike could win the Kentucky Derby. But, in the kind of underdog miracle that Hollywood loves, the 80-1 outsider of the whole field came home in front to secure himself and his little-known trainer and jockey a slice of racing immortality. But who is Rich Strike, and where did he come from?
It took Rich Strike two minutes and two seconds to go from zero to hero, from deep obscurity to global fame. As race-caller Larry Collmus so memorably put it: “Oh my goodness, the longest shot has won the Kentucky Derby!”. Rich Strike was 80-1, the outsider of all 20 runners, the second-longest shot ever to win America’s greatest race. How did it happen?
Rich Strike was lucky to be there at all. He wasn’t a contender until the morning before the Derby, when he drew in off the also-eligible list after Ethereal Road was scratched from the race. He hadn’t done enough to qualify for the Derby, hadn’t won any preps, hadn’t earned enough points. He was lucky that other horses further up the points standings – Forbidden Kingdom, Morello, Early Voting – were withdrawn, sending the cut-off line for the Derby low enough to include him at the last moment. All the other runners had done more, won more. But Rich Strike was lucky.
The Derby was Rich Strike’s first victory since he broke his maiden – at Churchill Downs, quirkily enough – on his second start. Between then and the Derby he was zero-for-five, and even in a racing context, let alone a broader picture, he was nothing much.
On his first start in a stakes he was fifth at the Fair Grounds, beaten 14 lengths by Epicenter, on whom he would gain a glorious revenge. Then he shipped to Turfway Park, where they race on a synthetic surface, and was third in a stakes, then fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial behind Tiz The Bomb, which was enough to earn him one ‘Road to the Kentucky Derby’ qualifying point.
His final Derby prep was the G3 Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway, in which he earned 20 RTKD points for running third behind Tiz The Bomb and Tawny Port, giving him a total of 21 points, which would not have been anywhere near enough to qualify for the Derby had it not been for all those withdrawals, and the final, crucial scratch of Ethereal Road.
Background of a surprising star
Rich Strike is the only Derby winner ever to have been claimed out of a race, which happened when trainer Eric Reed paid $30,000 for him after he won a maiden claimer. Reed, 57, has trained many winners in the minor leagues but, until Rich Strike won him the Derby, only one at Graded level. Reed’s barn burned down in 2016 and 23 horses died. He considered quitting. But he persevered, and look at him now.
Jockey Sonny Leon, 32, has also ridden plenty of winners at small, second-division tracks, but the Derby was the first Graded success for the Venezuelan, who has been riding in the US for seven years.
Shocks run in Rich Strike’s family. His sire Keen Ice was seventh in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, and is best known for winning the G1 Travers at Saratoga as a 16-1 longshot, when he beat Triple Crown hero American Pharoah.
Any Kentucky Derby winner who comes out of the race sound and well will go on to the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico on May 21, and that is the target for Rich Strike. He won’t be 80-1 this time.
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