Starr: Long Shot Rich Strike’s Kentucky Derby Is a Win for Racing and Racing Fans

Rich Strike
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Everyone loves when an underdog wins and what’s more fun than a Cinderella story where the stepdaughter ends up winning the heart of a prince?

But in the case of the 80-1 long shot colt who won the Run for the Roses, beating the odds is not only great for Rich Strike and his trainer Eric Reed but good for horse racing and horse racing fans. 

That’s because the sport has faced more than its share of controversies in recent years, including Churchill Downs suspending trainer Bob Baffert, who has been the face of American horse racing for almost three decades. The suspension lasted through mid-2023 and came after his 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a drug test.

Baffert’s fall from grace comes after his record wins in the Triple Crown races — a record-tying six Kentucky Derbies, seven Preakness wins, and three Belmonts.

Medina Spirit died suddenly while training after the Derby contest.

But now the spotlight is on another trainer, and his horse who beat the odds well beyond the kind bet makers conjure up ahead of horse racing’s biggest day. And the horse is inspiring new fans to follow the sport to see if he can take all three races in the Triple Crown.

Rich Strike with Sonny Leon up wins the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 07, 2022 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Rich Strike and Sonny Leon win the 148th Kentucky Derby (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Saturday’s pre-game ceremonies included the traditional hat contests and a choir singing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Not to mention the $2,500 charity Mint Juleps that were for sale.

But as the pomp and circumstance before the race unfolded, the media focused on the horses favored to win, including Epicenter, who would finish in second place, and Zandon, who finished in third place.

Other high-profile horses were trotted out with their owners and trainers for the cameras before the gates opened, including a horse that would have been the first bred in Japan to win the coveted Derby title.

But Rich Strike was not in the media spotlight — until jockey Sonny Leon pushed his mount ahead in a field of 20 steeds running full speed to cross the finish line first.

Here are some of the odds Rich Strike and his human team beat to achieve what Reed called “an absolute miracle.”

  • Leon rode to the winner’s circle in his first Kentucky Derby appearance. 
  • Rich Strike hadn’t won a race since the Maiden Claiming at Churchill Downs last September.
  • Rich Strike’s owner, Richard Dawson, said he found out his horse was in the Derby 30 minutes before the deadline. 
  • The horse made the cut after another horse, Ethereal Road, was scratched from the race just two days before the Derby.

And the road to the winner’s circle also seemed like a miracle for Reed, who almost gave up on the sport.

The New York Post reported on the tragedy:

Reed admitted that he nearly walked away from horse racing after 23 horses were killed by a fire at his Mercury Equine Center in Lexington in 2016. Only 13 horses survived the fire, which reportedly was caused by lightning.

‘When we drove up on that that night, I told my wife, I said, ‘We’ve probably lost everything,’’ Reed said, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. ‘By the grace of God, the wind was blowing in a direction that kept it from getting to the other two barns. 

‘The next morning when we saw the devastation, because this happened in the middle of the night, I just thought of all the years and all the stuff we had done to get this beautiful farm and have this happen, that something might be telling me it’s the end of the line.’

Reed said support from fellow trainers kept him going after the fire.

“Thank God we’re here today,” Reed said.

The financial reward is good, too — the purse for the Derby winner is $1.86 million.

But perhaps the greatest prize is for fans to see a horse that nobody thought could win — and win fairly — roll past his celebrated competitors.

“We were just trying to get here,” Eric Reed said in a Kentucky dot com article. “It just went a step further than we would have ever dreamed.”

Fans undoubtedly agree. And they are most likely already looking forward to the next race, the Preakness, set for May 21 in Maryland.

Like those who already love a good horse race, they want to see if the chestnut colt can blaze another new trail and win the second race of the Triple Crown. 

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