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Horse Racing

Rich Strike wins 2022 Kentucky Derby in stunning upset as 80-1 long shot

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — At 8:45 a.m. Friday morning, Eric Reed texted his father and mentor, Herbert, to say the horse he was training, Rich Strike, would fall one slot short of making the Kentucky Derby field.

Ten minutes later, a staff member called to tell him otherwise; trainer D. Wayne Lukas had scratched Ethereal Road at the last minute. The 20th spot in the race belonged to Reed’s horse.

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“I couldn’t even breathe to answer so I could say yes,” he said.

This news did not cause much of a ripple in the wider universe around the Derby. Of all the scenarios fans and analysts batted around Saturday before the 148th running of the $3 million race, Rich Strike was not part of any. He went off as an 80-1 long shot, the ultimate afterthought.

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That changed in a hurry as he roared down the stretch in pursuit of two of the most gifted blue bloods in the race, Epicenter and Zandon. When he hit the wire ahead of both, finishing the 1 1/4 mile race in 2:02.61, this previously anonymous colt became the second-longest shot ever to win the Derby.

“I fell down in the paddock when he hit the wire,” said Reed, who had never saddled a horse for the Derby. “I about passed out.”

The sheer improbability of this tale became clear as each person connected to Rich Strike told his story after the race. Reed had won 1,441 races since he began training in 1985, most of them at second-tier tracks such as Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky, and Horseshoe Indianapolis. Before the Derby, exactly one of those wins came in a graded stakes.

That was one better than jockey Sonny Leon, a leading rider at smaller tracks who had never worked on anything comparable to the Derby stage. “I think I got that race,” Leon thought to himself about 15 yards from the finish line, and he pushed Rich Strike harder. He was excited, he said afterward, not nervous.

“He has as much courage, and he’s as fearless as our horse,” said Rich Strike’s owner Rick Dawson, another unlikely piece to the puzzle. He’s a semiretired oil and gas man from Oklahoma with two horses in training.

“I don’t know that we’ve even had an allowance winner, have we?” he asked Reed at the post-Derby news conference.

Reed shook his head.

But these three men had faith in each other, and their belief in Rich Strike grew as they watched him train at Churchill Downs. He was 24th in line for the field of 20 when he arrived, but as other horses fell away, Reed began to believe he might make some noise.

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“I didn’t think I’d win necessarily,” he said. “But I knew if he got in, they’d know who he was when it was over.”

He watched his horse drop near the back of the pack Saturday and remain in 15th with a quarter-mile to go. Leon rode brilliantly from there, splitting the tiring Messier and Crown Pride as they fell back and chasing down the leaders.

Rich Strike, a fitting name if there ever was one, paid a whopping $163.60 on a $2 bet to win, $74.20 on a $2 bet to place and $29.40 on a $2 bet to show. Only Donerail in 1913 won the race at longer odds.

Epicenter, the 4-1 favorite, finished second, paying $7.40 on a $2 bet to place and $5.20 on a $2 bet to show. Zandon, the morning-line favorite, finished third, paying $5.60 on a $2 bet to show. Epicenter’s trainer Steve Asmussen and Zandon’s trainer Chad Brown, two of the most accomplished figures in the sport, again fell short in their respective quests to win a first Derby.

“I can’t believe it after Epicenter’s effort,” Asmussen said. “And, the scenario in which I went 0-for-24, you couldn’t make up. I got beat by the horse that just got in.”

Instead, the glory went to Reed, a second-generation trainer who said he nearly left the game when he lost 23 horses to a barn fire in 2016. “We probably lost everything,” he told his wife when they pulled up to their barns that night. Only a favorable wind kept the blaze from destroying the entire facility.

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Reed kept going because he’d never wanted to do anything else. He started going to the track with his father around age six, and when he graduated high school, he told Herbert he planned to skip college so he could get straight to training.

“You want to be a trainer?” Herbert told him. “Here’s two horses.”

On Saturday night, they embraced in the wake of a Kentucky Derby victory. Inconceivable.

Before Reed found out his horse was in the field on Friday, he was planning a Saturday workout and a trip to New York for the May 14 Peter Pan Stakes.

He claimed Rich Strike for $30,000 last fall after the horse won a maiden race at Churchill Downs. He did not win again over his next five races.

But Dawson lauded Reed’s patience with the horse,

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He loved the way Rich Strike was training at Churchill Downs, so when the Derby opportunity presented itself, he figured: why not?

Saturday dawned overcast and cool, but patrons in pink jackets and flowered hats soldiered their way to Churchill Downs, determined to soak in the largest party of the spring. The coronavirus pandemic sucked the spirit out of the Derby along with every other public gathering, pushing it to Labor Day weekend in 2020 and limiting the crowd to 51,838, about one-third of the usual throng, in 2021. So this was a stab at normalcy for a city where racing remains a signature industry.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson and Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps were among those in town for the festivities, with both appearing on the red carpet at the Barnstable Brown Gala fundraiser on Derby eve.

Beyond the pandemic, the Derby itself has been a stage for chaos in recent years.

In 2019, patrons, bettors, trainers and jockeys waited 22 minutes to see if stewards would disqualify Maximum Security, who crossed the finish line first after veering into the path of several rivals on the far turn. They did, handing victory to 65-1 long shot Country House, who never raced again.

Last year, Medina Spirit seemed to give trainer Bob Baffert his record-setting seventh Derby win. But his victory was called into question, and ultimately overturned, by a positive test for the ant-inflammatory medication betamethasone.

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The ensuing hubbub over Medina Spirit’s entry in the Preakness (he was allowed to run after extra prerace testing and finished third) cast a shadow over the Triple Crown series. The colt died suddenly in December, about two months before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission stripped his Derby win and suspended Baffert.

That penalty kept the sport’s most famous figure away from Churchill Downs this year. His traditional Barn 33 sat empty, devoid of the signs celebrating his past Derby triumphs and of the crowd that usually congregates around the white-haired trainer. Baffert was not entirely absent from the race, however, with two of his former trainees, Messier and Taiba, entered under the care of his former assistant, Tim Yakteen. In an interview with ESPN on the eve of the Derby, Baffert vowed to continue fighting to clear his name and to restore Medina Spirit’s victory.

So the 2022 race went off against a complicated backdrop. But Rich Strike blew the messy stories out of the water with his monumental upset.

“What planet is this?” his owner, Dawson, asked after the race.

Will this improbable saga make its next stop in Baltimore for the Preakness?

“We’ll see how he is tomorrow,” Reed said. “But that’s obviously the spot we’ve got to look at.”

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147th Preakness Stakes

Pimlico Race Course

May 21

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 2 p.m.)


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