Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve (Grade 1)
RICK Dawson figured he’d never won even an allowance race before he stepped on the infield days after winning America’s biggest horse race, and barely even 10 races total in his time as an owner.
Yet there he was last Saturday, standing among other relative unknowns after his near-forgotten colt Rich Strike won the 148th edition of the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve in front of 147,294 fans at Churchill Downs and millions more watching around the world on television, livestream or simulcast.
Trainer Eric Reed, the winner of more than 1,400 races in his career but only one graded stakes race; and jockey Sonny Leon, who plies his trade at places like Mahoning Valley and Belterra Park, joined Dawson in the winner’s circle after pulling off the second biggest upset in Derby history.
Rich Strike turned the American racing scene upside down with his 81/1 upset, coming from way back and through the 20-horse field softened up by an inexplicable fast early pace.
“I just won the lottery, I’m telling you,” said Dawson, a semi-retired resident of Oklahoma who made his money in the oil and gas business.
Bettors holding winning tickets on Rich Strike felt like they hit the Powerball too, as the former $30,000 maiden claimer triggered monster payoffs in the exotics.
He also provided Dawson’s RED TR-Racing Inc. operation with a winner’s check of $1.86 million, more than 16 times Rich Strike’s earnings coming into the Derby.
Rich Strike and his team almost didn’t get the chance to even run in the Derby, much less win it.
Relegated to the also-eligible list when entries were taken the Monday before the race because of insufficient points earned in the three eligible races he competed in late 2021 and 2022, Rich Strike needed a scratch from the body of the race by Friday morning to draw in.
The scratch came when D. Wayne Lukas opted to take Ethereal Road out of the Derby about 12 hours before he won the Kentucky Oaks with Secret Oath.
That opened the door for Rich Strike, a son of Keen Ice, prepared primarily this spring at Reed’s Mercury Equine Center in Lexington. Rich Strike trained there after he was claimed by Reed and Dawson for $30,000 out of a 17 and a quarter-length victory in a mile maiden claiming race on the dirt last September at Churchill.
He finished third three times, fourth once and fifth once since that claim, hardly the typical Derby runner resume, but his team never lost confidence heading into the first Saturday in May.
“We came here on a prayer,” Reed said. “I told my dad and I told Rick, ‘the worst thing that could happen to us is to have a call a day or two before the Derby and say you’re going to get in, and not be prepared.’ So we came up. We trained against all odds. Nobody thought we could get in. We got a defection, and we got another one.
“The morning of the entries, at 8.45pm I was notified that there were no scratches, that we were not going to get in. The security guard was told to leave the barn. I texted my dad, ‘Didn’t happen.’ Texted some friends, ‘We didn’t get in. Sorry guys.’ I went in to my crew because I knew they were going to be really let down. I said, ‘Guys, look, we didn’t make it, but we were Number 21.’”
Reed figured he’d point Rich Strike to Saturday’s Grade 2 Peter Pan at Belmont Park, a primary prep for the Belmont Stakes and go from there. Then Ethereal Road came out. Then UAE Derby winner Summer Is Tomorrow and Japanese invader Crown Pride sizzled through opening splits of :21.78, :45.36 and 1m10.34secs, softening up other front runners and immediate chasers.
Leon, whose biggest career victories before the Derby came in the Best of Ohio Endurance Stakes at Thistledown just outside Cleveland, Ohio, settled Rich Strike at the back and was content to race in 18th through the opening six furlongs.
He eventually weaved his way through traffic, darting inside and outside tiring rivals around the far turn before finding daylight in the stretch. He angled Rich Strike off the rail in the stretch to the outside and past Messier and found only two foes remaining to catch.
Epicenter, the 4/1 favourite and Louisiana Derby winner trained by Steve Asmussen, and Zandon, the 6/1 third choice and Blue Grass Stakes winner trained by Chad Brown, were locked in a spirited battle in the lane.
Maybe it wasn’t Affirmed and Alydar, or even Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, but it looked like the start of a budding rivalry. Until it wasn’t. Rich Strike and Leon slipped through on the inside and rolled past without response. Rich Strike won by three-quarters of a length over Epicenter, who held the same margin over Zandon.
Reed collapsed watching from the paddock, partly blaming a bad back combined with the thrill of a lifetime. Dawson still couldn’t fathom the moment more than an hour later.
“What planet is this?” he said. “I feel like I have been propelled somewhere. I’m not sure. This is unbelievable. I asked my trainer up on the stage, I said, ‘Are you sure this is not a dream? Because it can’t be true.’ He assured me this is real.”