Rich Strike, the 80-1 long shot who thrilled the racing world with his late charge to victory in the Kentucky Derby, will skip the Preakness, owner Rick Dawson said Thursday.
Rich Strike’s absence will rob the Baltimore race of its customary tension, with no Triple Crown narrative at stake and no debate over the historic underdog’s chances to do it again. Ratings on NBC plummeted 29% in 2019, when none of the top three Derby finishers ran in the Preakness.
“It’s disappointing,” said NBC racing analyst Randy Moss. “Clearly, we would prefer that Rich Strike run in the Preakness, because he did capture the imagination of the sports public with the way he won and the improbability of it all. Not to mention that the people involved with Rich Strike are so likable and so humble, with a lot of meat on that bone from a storytelling perspective.”
Preakness organizers had hoped this year would represent a return to normal for Baltimore’s largest annual sporting event after the coronavirus pandemic pushed it to October in 2020 and limited attendance last spring. The event’s infield festival will be back after a two-year absence, with no limit on the crowd, which hit a record high of 134,487 in 2018.
Dawson said he and trainer Eric Reed originally planned to run Rich Strike in the Derby and come back five weeks later for the Belmont Stakes.
“Obviously, with our tremendous effort & win in the Derby, it’s very, very tempting to alter our course & run in the Preakness at Pimlico, which would be a great honor for all our group,” Dawson said in a statement provided by Preakness organizers. “However, after much discussion & consideration with my trainer, Eric Reed & a few others, we are going to stay with our plan of what’s best for Ritchie is what’s best for our group, and pass on running in the Preakness, and point toward the Belmont in approximately 5 weeks.”
Reed had indicated since the morning after the Derby that he expected to enter Rich Strike in the Preakness if he held up well in training. In an update from his home track in Kentucky on Wednesday, Reed said: “Everything seems good.”
The trainer did not immediately respond to telephone and text messages Thursday.
The decision to skip the Preakness is unusual but not unprecedented.
Technically, Mandaloun was the last Derby winner not to run in the Preakness, and that was just last year. But Medina Spirit was considered Derby champion at the time and only lost his title nine months later because of a medication violation. Medina Spirit did run at Pimlico Race Course and finished third.
Country House, who won the 2019 Derby after Maximum Security was disqualified, did not travel to the Preakness because of a cough and never raced again. Before his defection, it had been 23 years since a Derby champion failed to take a shot at the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Justify in 2018 was the last horse to win the Derby and the Preakness, and he went on to take the Triple Crown.
Trainers and owners are increasingly reluctant to run their horses on two weeks’ rest, the customary gap between the Derby and Preakness. Such busy schedules were common in past eras, but rest periods of a month or more are the current norm for elite thoroughbreds.
Moss said the decision on Rich Strike should prompt serious discussion of extending the Triple Crown schedule, with the Preakness on Memorial Day weekend and the Belmont Stakes closer to July 4.
“Something like this was inevitable,” the NBC analyst said. “The spacing of the Triple Crown races should have been changed 15 years ago. It’s a complete anachronism for 2022.”
There is no overarching authority to mandate such talks; the Maryland Jockey Club and the New York Racing Association, which operate the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, respectively, would have to come to an agreement on their own. A $5 million Triple Crown bonus from Visa used to offer financial incentive for trainers and owners to enter all three races, but the company discontinued it in 2005.
A spokesman for the Maryland Jockey Club said the organization had no statement on Rich Strike’s withdrawal.
The decision leaves a massive hole in the field for the Preakness, which was set to feature a rematch between Rich Strike and Derby runner-up Epicenter, the horse he passed with his miraculous charge over the last quarter-mile at Churchill Downs.
Rich Strike was not even in the 20-horse Derby field until the morning before the race, when the late scratch of Ethereal Road created a spot for him. He had won just once in seven career starts going into the biggest race of his life. His trainer, Reed, and his jockey, Sonny Leon, were equally long shots, with one win in a graded stakes between them. In the wake of their victory, Reed said he had contemplated leaving the industry in 2016 after a barn fire killed 23 of his horses.
He described the aftermath of the Derby as “a euphoria that won’t go away.”
Reed did not commit fully to running in the Preakness, saying his and Dawson’s plans would depend on how Rich Strike looked coming out of the Derby. They shipped him back to Reed’s Mercury Training Center near Lexington the day after the race. He resumed jogging and galloping on Tuesday, with Reed saying he “traveled great.”
Though he continued to stop short of a Preakness commitment in interviews Tuesday and Wednesday, Reed gave no indication that he was about to pull Rich Strike from consideration.
With the Derby champion out, Epicenter will be the leading carry-over from the first leg of the Triple Crown and a likely favorite in Baltimore. He’ll be joined by a list of contenders including fourth-place Derby finisher Simplification and Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Secret Oath, trained by six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas.
Before Country House, the last Derby winner to skip the Preakness was Grindstone, who missed the second jewel of the Triple Crown in 1996 because of a bone chip in his right knee.
In 1985, Spend a Buck snubbed Preakness for the Jersey Derby at since-closed Garden State Park. The motivation in that case was financial; Spend a Buck stood to pick up a $2 million bonus because he’d already won the Cherry Hill Mile and the Garden State Stakes. The winner’s purse for the Preakness was about $300,000 at the time.
Spend a Buck won the Jersey Derby, providing a windfall for owner Dennis Diaz, even as some turf writers derided the violation of tradition.
Three years before that, in 1982, trainer Eddie Gregson opted to steer his long-shot Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, past the Preakness in hopes of capturing the Belmont Stakes. Gato Del Sol did finish second in the third jewel of the Triple Crown but was soundly beaten by Conquistador Cielo.
Pimlico general manager Chick Lang showed what he thought of Gregson’s decision by sticking a goat in the stall usually reserved for the Derby champion.
The last Derby winner to skip the Preakness before Gato Del Sol was Tomy Lee in 1959.