- The last horse to get into the field as an ‘also eligible’, 80-1 longshot Rich Strike won the 148th Kentucky Derby.
- Rich Strike got a great ride from unheralded jockey Sonny Leon to take advantage of the blistering pace set by the frontrunners.
- Rich Strike is now the second biggest longshot to win the ‘Run for the Roses’ behind 91-1 Donerail in 1913.
When the post positions and morning line odds were set for the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the race winner wasn’t even in the field. As the first ‘also eligible’, Rich Strike was the 21st horse in a twenty horse field. He needed a horse in the ‘top 20’ to scratch out of the race to get in and that’s just what happened when D. Wayne Lukas made the decision to withdraw Ethereal Road from the Kentucky Derby. The horse didn’t appear to have an injury but Lukas made the decision, likely because he didn’t think the horse could win. Ethereal Road would have been Lukas’ 50th Kentucky Derby runner–he’s definitely ‘been there before’.
That opened the door for Rich Strike to get into the Kentucky Derby, starting in the 20th hole. All of the pre-race press focused on Rich Strike’s connections ‘savoring the experience’ of backing in to North America’s most iconic race. Unheraled jockey Sonny Leon–who ran six races at Belterra Park outside of Cincinnati on Friday–clearly had other plans. Leon turned in one of the definitive rides by a jockey in Kentucky Derby history, coming from behind and taking advantage of the blistering early pace to become the upset winner of the Kentucky Derby. Rich Strike (80-1) was the biggest longshot in the race, and is now the second highest priced horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby behind 91-1 Donerail in 1913.
It was Venezuelan jockey Leon’s first ever graded stakes victory and only the second career win for Rich Strike. Nothing on the horse’s resume suggested that he had this kind of performance in him. His first win was a maiden claimer in his second start in September 2021. Since then, he hadn’t finished higher than third in any race though steady performances in three Kentucky Derby qualifiers at Turfway Park–the Leonatus Stakes (3rd), the John Battaglia Memorial (4th) and the Jeff Ruby Steaks (3rd) gave him sufficient points to make the field. Rich Strike definitely didn’t have the past performance profile of a hapless horse–just not one that would be able to do much against the sport’s elite three year olds.
As for jockey Leon, before Saturday’s victory he was a well regarded rider at second tier tracks like Belterra and Mahoning Valley Race Course in Youngstown, Ohio. Now, he’s a Kentucky Derby winner after turning in one of the most impressive rides by a jockey in the race’s 148 year run. Rich Strike broke last and Leon–knowing that he couldn’t match the speed of the other horses in the field–smartly moved him to the rail. Meanwhile, Summer Is Tomorrow was at the front of the field setting insane fractions of 21.78 and 45.36. Rich Strike remained on the rail and at the rear of the field, 17th at the quarter pole and 18th at the half pole.
The speed of the race clearly set the table for a strong closer to steal the win. The ‘conventional wisdom’ was that there wasn’t such a closer in the field but Rich Strike proved otherwise. Leon–who trainer Eric Reed said ‘taught (the horse) how to ride through horses and pass horses’–did just that. As the front runners faded, Leon and Rich Strike sliced through the field. Making a decisive move outside of a tiring Messier, Rich Strike ran right past Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter and Blue Grass Stakes winner Zandon–both completely gassed–to win the race.
Leon ranked 83rd in earnings among North American jockeys last year might have been the true victor. He put himself on the radar as a very capable jockey who knows how to impact a race with his tactical decisions. All he needed to advance his career was a ‘break’ and he definitely gave himself one on Saturday. After the race, trainer Reed had these words about Leon:
“He’s a leading rider where he is. He was good enough to get me here. So the difference between the Sonny Leons and the guys everybody sees every day is they ride those horses all the time. He doesn’t get a chance. But where he rides, he rides those horses everywhere and he wins all the races. And he’s a great rider with a lot of courage. But he has a very smart head and a good sense of pace.”
“Everybody wanted Sonny Leon at one point in their career. They just needed the big stable or the good horses to take him to the top.”
Jockeys typically err on the side of humility in their post race comments but Leon gave a good recap:
“You know we had a difficult post but I know the horse. I didn’t know if he could win but I had a good feeling with him. I had to wait until the stretch and that’s what I did. I waited and then the rail opened up. I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. Nobody knows my horse like I know my horse.”
“I started to push just a little bit, you know, because (Rich Strike) is a little bit lazy. And at the rail, I was so close, like seven lengths behind the leader. I said, ‘I got a shot.’”
Rich Strike rewarded bettors with prices of $163.60 to win, $74.20 to place and $29.40 to show. Morning line favorite Epicenter finished second, returning $7.40 to place and $5.20 to show. Zandon took third paying $5.60 to show. The 21-3 $2.00 Exacta paid $4,101.20, the 21-3-10 50 cent Trifecta paid $7,435.35 and the $1.00 21-3-10-13 Superfecta paid a whopping $321,500.10.
Even though he’d just won the Kentucky Derby, Rich Strike though the post race was a good time to kick his lead pony’s ass: