The New York Times Sports department is revisiting the subjects of some compelling articles from the last year or so. Rich Strike won the 148th Kentucky Derby in May as an 80-1 shot.
Eric Reed and Sonny Leon know about life’s changing scores. Theirs came on the first Saturday in May in a little horse race called the Kentucky Derby. Both were first-timers to the sport’s grand spectacle, and no one gave their colt, Rich Strike, much of a shot to run away with the roses.
He had won once in his seven previous races, competing mostly in the minor leagues at Turfway Park, a 90-minute drive northeast of Churchill Downs, in Florence, Ky., outside Cincinnati. In fact, Rich Strike barely made the Derby field, claiming the last starting spot the day before the race because of a rival’s late defection.
How they got there didn’t matter to Reed, the colt’s trainer, and Leon, his jockey. What mattered was what they did about it: They proved that they belonged.
Leon hustled Rich Strike from last to first with a swerving, impeccably timed stretch drive that had people in the grandstands looking through their programs and television viewers at home looking through Google to find out who these guys were with the 80-1 shot.
What they found was that Reed was a Kentucky hardboot who won races in bunches at the casino racetracks in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, and that Leon, a 32-year-old Venezuelan, was his go-to rider. The colt’s owner, Rick Dawson, had exactly one horse in his stable and that was Rich Strike, whom he bought for $30,000.
These are not the kinds of people who usually win premier races in the sport of kings. It is instead often sheikhs and industrialists, who throw millions of dollars around in pursuit of regally bred racehorses in an effort to win America’s greatest horse race.
“We showed everybody that anyone can do this, not just the elite,” said Reed, still giddy more than eight months after the Derby. “We all came from nowhere. We pulled a major upset. We shocked the world.”
Suddenly, the ding-ding-ding of slot machines at the casino tracks at Belterra in Ohio and Mountaineer Park in West Virginia gave way to the siren song of the New York and a Triple Crown race. They skipped the Preakness in Baltimore but came to New York, where they finished sixth in the Belmont Stakes.
“It was too much after the way he ran in Kentucky,” Reed said. “But what a trip for me and my guys. Just being there.”
Also there in New York were Jerry Dixon and his son Jerry Jr., the colt’s groom and the fourth generation of the family in the horse business. So was Gabriel Lagunes, an accomplished jockey on the casino circuit who has been driving between West Virginia and Kentucky for years to exercise Reed’s horses.
In July, Leon traded the casino circuit he dominated for South Florida’s Gulfstream Park, the racetrack where he first landed after arriving in America in 2015. Back then, he could not secure an agent and was mainly an exercise rider. Now, he rides in five or six races a day and has earned more than $1 million in purses at one of the most competitive racetracks in the nation.
“Rich Strike put me in the top tier,” Leon said. “I’m working harder than ever to show I belong.”
As for Rich Strike, he took his entourage to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where he ran fourth in the Travers Stakes, and then back to Kentucky for a second-place finish at the Lukas Classic and then the Breeders’ Cup Classic for a fourth-place run.
The colt’s past performances for the year tell the story of an honest racehorse that competed against the best of his generation and never embarrassed himself: nine starts, one victory and three in-the-money finishes for more than $2.4 million in earnings.
“Those were tough races, but he always showed up and tried hard,” Leon said. “He will always be my favorite horse.”
Rich Strike is resting now on a farm in the bluegrass, just being a horse. But he is not finished. There have been modest offers from stallion stations in America as well as overseas to stand him for stud.
Come January, however, Reed will bring him back to his training center near Lexington, Ky., and begin getting him ready for an ambitious campaign. Dawson, the owner, wants to run him as a 4-year-old.
“He is twice the horse that he was in May physically and mentally,” Reed said. “He’s grown up.”
The first stop is Dubai on March 25 for the $12 million World Cup and, if Rich Strike stays happy and healthy, the last will be Santa Anita Park in California on Nov. 4 for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. In between, Reed is pointing for three stakes races in Kentucky and New York.
The Dixons will be along for the ride, as will Leon and Lagunes.
“Everybody is still on the team and there is no plan to change them,” Reed said. “Win or lose, Rich Strike has done enough for us. Hey, we won the Kentucky Derby.”