LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Another improbable chapter in Kentucky Derby (G1) history was written Saturday at Churchill Downs when Rich Strike, who wasn’t even assured a spot in the starting gate 36 hours before post time, turned in the most shocking upset in the modern history of the race under jockey Sonny Leon.
Rich Strike was stuck on the also-eligible list Friday morning, shortly before the 9 a.m. (ET) scratch time. Connections were resigned to not getting in the race, but at the eleventh hour a space opened when the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Ethereal Road was withdrawn shortly before the deadline.
“I didn’t think I could win necessarily, but I knew if he got in, they’d know who he was when the race was over,” said trainer Eric Reed, who debated whether to even continue training after tragically losing 23 horses in a barn fire six years ago.
Sporting saddlecloth number 21 and breaking from post 20, Rich Strike, a confirmed closer by trade, broke from the gate as the 80-1 longest shot on the board and was sent immediately into a ground saving position passing the stands for the first time. He raced outside Mo Donegal, with only a couple horses behind that pair entering the clubhouse turn.
The pace of this Derby was wicked fast. Dubai shipper Summer Is Tomorrow ripped through fractions of :21.78 and :45.36, followed closely by Japanese invader Crown Pride. Epicenter, the 4-1 favorite, and Zandon, the 6-1 third choice, rated near the middle of the pack but began to improve position approaching the far turn as the pacesetters began to falter. Rich Strike, meanwhile, continued to race near the back, but was within five lengths of the lead at the quarter pole.
Behind a wall of traffic approaching the turn for home, Leon and Rich Strike had to continue to save ground and hope for an opening. Weaving in and out between rivals in upper stretch, Rich Strike finally had a clear run at Epicenter and Zandon, who by the eighth pole had turned the Derby into their own match race. While most in the huge crowd expected either of those two to win in the final furlong, Rich Strike’s closing kick inside Epicenter could not be contained.
“You know we had a difficult post but I know the horse,” said Leon, who rides regularly on the Ohio circuit of Mahoning Valley and Belterra Park. “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.”
Rich Strike won by three parts of a length in a time of 2:02.61 for 1 1/4 miles on a fast track. He returned $163.60, the second longest-priced winner in Derby history behind 91-1 chance Donerail in 1913.
Epicenter held off Zandon for second by three parts of a length, with Simplification two lengths back in fourth. The order of finish was rounded out by Mo Donegal, Barber Road, Tawny Port, Smile Happy, Tiz the Bomb, Zozos, Classic Causeway, Taiba, Crown Pride, Happy Jack, Messier, White Abarrio, Charge It, Cyberknife, Pioneer of Medina, and Summer Is Tomorrow.
Rich Strike is the 10th Kentucky Derby winner bred by historic Calumet Farm, which campaigned eight of those winners and also bred 1991 Derby hero Strike the Gold. Rich Strike made his first two starts for Calumet and trainer Joe Sharp last summer.
Last of 10 in his debut over the turf at Ellis Park in August, Rich Strike next ran in a $30,000 maiden claimer at Churchill over one mile on the dirt on Sept. 17. Rich Strike won by 17 1/4 lengths and was claimed out of the race by Reed for owner Rick Dawson’s RED TR-Racing.
Rich Strike never won another race between his maiden win and the Derby. He closed out his juvenile campaign finishing third in an allowance at Keeneland and then fifth by 14 lengths to Epicenter in the Gun Runner S. at Fair Grounds.
Rich Strike’s three-year-old campaign was similarly undistinguished on paper, which explained his long odds on Saturday. Racing exclusively over Turfway’s Tapeta track, Rich Strike finished third in the Jan. 22 Leonatus S., fourth in the March 5 John Battaglia Memorial, and a distant third behind Tiz the Bomb and Tawny Port in the April 2 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3).
Rich Strike earned 21 qualifying points toward the Derby in the Battaglia and Jeff Ruby, enough to get him first on the also-eligible list when the Derby field was drawn on Monday. But Reed saw signs of potential and improvement over the winter to justify entering the colt.
“I’m elated. I’m happy because this horse trained good enough to win,” said Reed, whose only other graded victory in a career dating to 1985 was the 2009 Raven Run (G2) with Satans Quick Chick. “This rider has been on him all along as he learned the process. He taught him to go between horses.”
Rich Strike is a son of Keen Ice and Canadian champion Gold Strike, a daughter of Smart Strike who has also reared Grade 2 winner Llanarmon. He moves on with a record of 8-2-0-3, $1,971,289.
And a story fit for Hollywood, the ending of which is far from completion.