HomeThe ShuffleHow Rich Strike Went From Worst to First

How Rich Strike Went From Worst to First

Rich Strike was the most unlikely horse to win the Kentucky Derby and our horse racing expert tells how he pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the sport.

Two days into the New Year, Rich Strike was 350-1 on one Las Vegas Kentucky Derby future board. In mid-April, his odds drifted to 300-1. He was literally the last horse on that board.

On May 6, the day he got into the Derby courtesy of D. Wayne Lukas scratching Ethereal Road, Rich Strike was 99-1. When the gate opened Saturday afternoon for the 148th Kentucky Derby, Rich Strike left Post 20 – the far outside post – 80-1, the longest shot on the board.

A couple ticks over two minutes later, 2:02.61 to be exact, the longest shot on the board pulled off the loudest Derby upset in 109 years, or since Donerail captured the 1913 Derby at 91-1.

This is a story out of a Hallmark movie. No, actually, it’s too improbable for even that network. Santa Anita Park’s Ed Golden in his notes called it “a plot akin to National Velvet.” Regardless of the medium, Rich Strike’s 80-1 shocker in the Derby resonated with the casual horse racing fans who have been turned off by the sport in the wake of a conga line of drug scandals and horse deaths.

It certainly resonated with bettors savvy or lucky enough to have Rich Strike on their tickets. When he crossed the finish line three-quarters of a length ahead of 4-1 Epicenter and 1 ½ lengths in front of third-place Zandon, the third favorite at 6-1, Rich Strike struck gold for his bettors. He paid $163.60 to win, $74.20 to place and $29.40 to show.

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Big Payday For Rich Strike Backers

A $2 Rich Strike-Epicenter exacta paid $4,101.20. The $1 trifecta with Zandon paid $14,870.70. Simplification finished 3 ½ lengths back in fourth, completing the superfecta at 30-1 that cashed a $321,500.10 ticket for the $1 superfecta.

Surreal payouts for a surreal performance. The internet was buzzing with tweets of NBC’s overhead shot showing Rich Strike’s final quarter mile, where he weaved his way through 14 other horses with largely a ground-saving trip along the rail. Along the way, jockey Sonny Leon – last seen the day before riding claimers at tiny Belterra Park in Cincinnati, OH – put on a riding clinic for the ages.

That ride featured Leon splitting tired pace-setters Messier and Crown Pride, en route to reeling in Epicenter and Zandon 50 yards from the finish line. The sight of Rich Strike coming up like a freight train on the rail and stealing the Derby surprised even NBC announcer Larry Collmus, considered one of the best in the game.

“I never dreamed I would be here, I never thought I’d have a Derby horse,” trainer Eric Reed said. “I never tried to go to the yearling sale and buy a Derby horse, I just wanted to buy my clients a horse that would keep them happy, have some fun, maybe make a little money. If we got a good one, terrific.

“Everybody would love to win the Derby,” Reed said. “I always would, but I never thought I would be here, ever.”

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It’s in the Blood

But a performance only Rich Strike’s barn and those long shot chasers saw coming. Rich Strike came into the Derby with one win in seven races. That came at 10-1 in a $30,000 claimer at Churchill Downs last September. Yes, it came by 17 ¼ lengths, and yes, it came with enough attention for Reed to put in a claim for the son of Keen Ice, himself the answer to a trivia question: “Who was the last horse to beat Triple Crown winner American Pharoah?”

Yes, Keen Ice, beating American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers Stakes at Saratoga.

So perhaps upsets were literally in the blood. But Rich Strike? There were few—if any—signs this was a Derby-caliber horse. His best Beyer Speed Figure going into the Derby was an 84, tied for the lowest in the field. Rich Strike’s best dirt Beyer? A 64, which would get you destroyed in a first-level allowance, never mind the Derby.

Reed ran him in an October Keeneland allowance, where he finished third. From there, he put him on the Derby trail, sending him to December’s Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds. There, Epicenter, along with three other horses who didn’t sniff the Derby starting gate, rudely introduced him to the Derby trail with a fifth-place finish. Rich Strike finished 14 lengths behind Epicenter, beating only two other horses.

A third in a Turfway Park minor stakes followed. But Reed liked what he saw. He kept Rich Strike on the Derby trail, seeing the upward progression every trainer wants to see out of a Triple Crown trail prospect. The colt finished fourth in the Black Type John Battaglia Memorial, then third in the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks. The speed figures went up both times.

“Eric brought this horse along in a fashion that spaced out races,” owner Richard Dawson said. “We passed on some races that didn’t really fit what we wanted to do. Last fall, we got together and he told me he thought we had something. I don’t want to get your hopes up too high. Eric easily undersells and overperforms. And that’s kind of the way he does about life.”

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Sneaking in to the Field

And yet, Rich Strike checked in with only 21 Derby points. He was 24th on the ladder after the last stop on the Derby trail: the Grade 3 Lexington. He needed three defections to get in.

The last one came with five minutes remaining before the field was locked Friday morning. D. Wayne Lukas, the 86-year-old training eminence and four-time Derby winner, scratched Ethereal Road because he didn’t like what he saw during workouts.

Reed got the call five minutes before the 9 a.m. ET deadline, asking him if he’d like to enter Churchill Downs’ 12th race Saturday. He was so startled, he said he “couldn’t even breathe to answer ‘yes.’”

The Preakness-bound Rich Strike answered for him.

“I didn’t think I would win, necessarily; but I knew if he got in, they would know who he was when the race was over,” Reed said.

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