Rich Strike's stunning Kentucky Derby win is the ultimate palate cleanser for a troubled sport | Opinion

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The trainer with the blue jeans and garish red jacket was so stunned, he fell to the ground in the paddock at Churchill Downs. The groom ran onto the track, barely able to breathe. The owner was dabbing at a cut on the left side of his face, afraid that it had burst open in the excitement.

And 147,294 people on the racetrack and millions more around the world had been thunderstruck by an 80-to-1 longshot that didn’t have a spot in the Kentucky Derby until Friday and hadn’t shown anything in his six-race career that suggested he belonged on the same racetrack with the best 3-year-olds in the sport.

“I was praying for ninth,” said Shelby Reed, the daughter of trainer Eric Reed, who has been around horse racing long enough to know the difference between crazy dreams and what actually happens on race day. And yet, on one of the most shocking Derby Days in the 148-year history of this race, the impossible happened. Rich Strike, a horse that Eric Reed and owner Rick Dawson claimed out of a cheap maiden race last September for $30,000 and got a place in the far outside starting gate Saturday mostly by dumb luck, won the Kentucky Derby.

He did it with a brilliant, where-did-that-come-from ride up the rail by Sonny Leon, a jockey based in Ohio who had never won a graded stakes before Saturday. He did it by rallying from almost dead-last around the first turn as the horses up front set a scorching, suicidal pace that eventually melted down. And he did it in the stretch by sneaking up on Epicenter and Zandon, the two favorites in the race who appeared poised for a classic duel in the center of the track until Rich Strike passed them both.

“Everything was perfect,” said Epicenter’s jockey, Joel Rosario. “We thought we were home.”

Was Saturday the biggest Derby upset ever? Donerail was a bigger price in 1913 at 91-1. Mine that Bird seemingly came out of nowhere in 2009, but at least he had won a couple big races in Canada as a 2-year-old. And in 1971, Canonero II came off the plane from Venezuela as a laughingstock and became perhaps the greatest rags-to-riches story in the entire history of the sport.

Sonny Leon aboard Rich Strike wins the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Sonny Leon aboard Rich Strike wins the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

And now we have Rich Strike, a horse that hadn’t finished better than third in his last five starts — and not in prestigious Derby preps, either. To say Rich Strike was overlooked would imply there was actually something to look at in his record. What it looked like, at least from a distance, was an overambitious owner who just wanted to say he got a horse in the Derby and enjoy a good party at Churchill Downs.

“Small trainer, small rider, small stable — this horse should have been 80-to-1 on paper,” Reed said. “But we're around him every day. I’ve been around a long time and had some really nice horses and we knew what we had. I’m not telling you by any means we knew we had a Derby winner, but if we didn’t think we’d be in the Derby we wouldn’t have been prepping him for it all year. Lightning can strike.”

The idea that a result like this can happen — in fact, does happen from time to time — is what keeps people coming back to the sport. It’s not all Bob Baffert, Middle Eastern royalty, million-dollar yearling sales and drug controversies. Sometimes it’s guys like Dawson, an Oklahoman who has worked in oil and gas and dabbled in horse racing over the years with mostly bad experiences.

Rich Strike jockey Sonny Leon, trainer Eric R. Reed and owner Richard Dawson celebrate winning the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.
Rich Strike jockey Sonny Leon, trainer Eric R. Reed and owner Richard Dawson celebrate winning the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

Though Dawson didn’t want to specifically address what had gone wrong in the past — “He really should have got out of the business but decided to give it another chance,” Reed said — this was mostly a small hobby. He said he’d never owned more than a share of six horses at a time and won fewer than 10 races total as an owner. Rich Strike is one of just two horses he currently has in training.

“I don’t think we've had a horse win an allowance race yet,” he said. “I didn’t get into this to win the Kentucky Derby — though I’m not giving the trophy back.”

In a sport that has had a few rough years, culminating with Medina Spirit’s disqualification from last year’s Derby over a positive drug test, this is the kind of win that can serve as a palate cleanser.

Reed, the son of longtime horseman Herbert Reed, is not the kind of trainer that’s supposed to win the Kentucky Derby. He’s been around a long time, winning over 1,400 races, but never at the highest level. Until Rich Strike, who earned $1.86 million for winning the Derby, his highest career earner was a mare named Satans Quick Chick who made $401,896 for him over a decade ago.

“We don’t go out and buy the big horses, we just try to have a good quality stable,” he said. “Our percentages are good, we take care of the horse first. The rest falls into place. I never dreamed I’d be here, never thought I’d have a Derby horse. Never went to the yearling sale and tried to buy a Derby horse. I just want to buy my clients a horse that will keep them happy, have some fun, maybe make a little money. This was never in my plans.”

It’s not the glamorous world the Bafferts and Steve Asmussens and Chad Browns operate in, but it’s a solid career — solid enough for Reed to open his own farm and training facility, the Mercury Equine Center, in Lexington.

But in December 2016, disaster struck when 23 horses died in an overnight fire. The damage actually could have been worse, as some horses were able to be saved and the fire didn’t spread to other barns. But it was a devastating event for Reed, who thought that perhaps it was a message that he needed to get out of the business. But the horse racing community immediately rallied around him. People he hadn’t seen or talked to for years pitched in to help. Fellow trainers called and offered to help get him some new horses and clients to keep the business going.

“Some big, big trainers — guys you guys know well — told me, 'Don't let this take you out,’” Reed said.

The hope, of course, is that luck will eventually come around if you stay in the game long enough and do things the right way. That break might have cashed in on Friday morning. The deadline for a horse to pull out of the race, opening up a starting gate for Rich Strike, was fast approaching. Reed was sure his Derby hopes were over and was trying to lift the spirits of his barn staff by telling them they’d have to get ready for the Peter Pan Stakes in New York in a couple weeks and perhaps the Belmont if things went well.

Then Reed got the call: trainer D. Wayne Lukas scratched Ethereal Road out of the Derby, and Rich Strike was in. That, in itself, was elation for Reed. Actually winning the race was an afterthought.

But Rich Strike made it to the Derby. Then fate — and a race that set up perfectly for a late-running, rail-hugging horse with a go-for-broke jockey on his back — took over from there.

“What planet is this?” Dawson said. “I just won the lottery, I’m telling you.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kentucky Derby longshot Rich Strike, Eric Reed is what sport needed