It’s not how you get there … it’s about everything working out and beating the clock by 10 minutes.
Some things have to work out perfectly and one might say it just did. Boy, did it ever.
It began on Monday a week ago as the field for the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby was drawn, with the owners, trainers and jockeys of 20 horses learning their starting post positions and morning line odds.
Twenty names were drawn, the last being Ethereal Road. There were two additional also eligible — No. 21 Rich Strike and No. 22 Rattle N Roll.
Everything was set and moving forward to the $3 million race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky — billed as “The Most Exciting 2 Minutes in Sports” or “The Run for the Roses” — the most iconic horse race and most coveted crown we have in this country.
Then on Friday afternoon, 10 minutes before the deadline, Ethereal Road was pulled from the race by his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas.
Hours later, Lukas won the $1 million Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies with his sensational and fast lady runner named Sacred Oath.
Moved up into the open slot was a colt named Rich Strike, trained by a Midwesterner named Eric Reed and ridden by a jockey named Sonny Leon, both coming into the race quite below the lowest levels of radar.
Colt, trainer and jockey were not household names. But that was about to change.
Rich Strike, homebred by traditionalist horse farm and breeder Calumet, began his 2-year-old racing career at Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky, known as the “Pea Patch” for the soybeans that use to grow in the infield. He finished 10th.
In September, trainer Joe Sharp entered him in a $30,000 claiming race. (A claiming race means any trainer and owner can dip in and buy.)
He was 10-1 that day and won by 17 lengths. Claimed that day by Reed, Rich Strike had a new home and surroundings.
His 3-year-old campaign began at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky, in suburban Cincinnati.
Rich Strike earned one measly point for running fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial on March 5. Then he earned 20 points for his third-place finish in the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway on April 2.
But a day before the derby, Rich Strike’s connections didn’t know if he would draw into the field. They needed help, and Friday they got help. Ethereal Road was withdrawn.
Rich Strike was in. He did it the hard way but he had a place in the 20-horse field.
The jockey, Leon, is a Venezuelan making his name in lesser racing venues in the Tri-State area of Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.
He came into the derby with few knowing about him and left with everyone knowing about him. Truly, the shot heard ’round the world. He was 0 for 5 Friday at Belterra Park in Cincinnati and won the Kentucky Derby with his only mount on Saturday.
The race began with the usual crapshoot and cavalry charge of breaking cleanly, getting position and mapping out a trip for the rugged 1¼ -mile race.
The two rabbits set the pace and others followed suit as they traveled the course. Turning for home it looked like a two-horse race with race favorite Epicenter getting the lead heading to the wire with Zandon flanked to his right. As Epicenter was looking like the winner, Leon who was hugging the rail, moved out, passed a horse on the outside and headed back to the rail again.
The momentum and ground saved, plus a ride for the ages, won him the race. The ride was as picture perfect as it could be. Quite unbelievable! Rich Strike won at 80-1 odds and payed $163 for a $2 bet. His trainer collapsed in the paddock upon watching his colt running to the finish line the on the big-screen TV.
You can’t call for a better Hollywood script. It was the second-highest Kentucky Derby payout, just falling short of the $183 winner Donerail in 1913. The 80-1 odds eclipsed Mine That Bird in 2009 at 50-1 and Country House in 2019 at 65-1.
• $2 Win $163.20 No. 21
• $2 Exacta $4,101.20 21-3
• $.50 Trifecta $7,435.35 21-3-10
• $1 Superfecta $321,500 first 4
• $.20 Pick 6 $161,630 (6 of 6)
• $.50 Pick 4 $25,834
• $.50 Pick 5 $247,215
And by the way: Rich Strike earned $1.8 million for his owners with victory.
Kentucky Derby attendance: 147,299
Wagering on all 14 races: $273 million (up 17%)
Wagering on Kentucky Derby: $179 million (up 15%)
Wagering from Japan: $8.3 million (the Japanese champion, Crown Pride, was in the field)
All sources Kentucky Derby Week (Wed.-Sat.): $391 million (up 25%)
Next stop: The Preakness, the second jewel of horse racing’s Triple Crown, at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland, on Saturday, May 21.
Join us on the air Saturdays, 9 a.m. 1090 AM The Mightier 1090/ESPN radio for RACE & SPORTS RADIO with special guest, Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Sonny Leon.