LOUISVILLE — This is what the Kentucky Derby does: It rises, it falls. It elevates, it diminishes. It rewards, it punishes. It welcomes storylines but does not make promises; it exists outside the whims and wants of bureaucrats and rulers. It pays homage only to the result. This is also what the Derby does: It makes us laugh, cry, cringe. It makes us thrilled or gutted. Sometimes it makes us squirm. And most of all, the Derby cares not in the least which of these emotions it evokes. There is no man behind the curtain. There are just 1 ¼ miles on the first Saturday in May, first to the line gets roses, no matter whom.
So on a cool, grey Saturday at Churchill Downs, a blustery day more suited to college football than horse racing, victory in the 148th Derby could have gone to one of the two horses prepared for the race by disgraced celebrity trainer Bob Baffert and cosmetically transferred to another trainer to allow them to run, a hopelessly awkward outcome for the sport. It could have gone to Epicenter or Zandon, the horses deemed best by most handicappers. It could have gone to Crown Pride, a horse bred in Japan, trying to make history.
It went to none of these.
It went, instead, to a place somewhere beyond handicapping, beyond reason, and beyond lucid dreams. It went to a chestnut colt named Rich Strike, who earned a place in the 20-horse field only because another horse scratched on the day before the Derby. A horse who was claimed for $30,000 after his first start last June, who hadn’t won a race since a maiden victory more than six months ago and came to the Derby on a five-race losing streak. Whose jockey, Sonny Leon, had never won a graded stakes race in his career and does most of his riding in the thoroughbred backwaters of Ohio. Whose trainer, 57-year-old Eric Reed, a father of five who has been training since the age of 18 without becoming famous or known beyond the bounds of his friends and family, lost 23 horses in a barn fire five years and nearly left the game. And who, upon winning the Kentucky Derby, damn near passed out on the ground in the saddling paddock.
“I never dreamed I would be here,” said Reed after the race. “I never thought I’d have a Derby horse. So this was never in my plans. Everybody would love to win the Derby, but I never thought I would be here, ever. [But] It’s a horse race, and anybody can win.”
It went to a horse wearing saddle cloth No. 21, emblematic of his late entry, sent off from the 20th and furthest outside post at odds of 81-1, the second-longest odds of any Derby winner in history, and the longest since Donerail won at 91-1 in 1913. Rich Strike paid a lottery ticket for a $163.60 win ticket. There have been several jaw-dropping upsets at the Derby in the last 20 years: Giacomo in 2005, Mine That Bird in 2009, Country House, by disqualification, in 2019. None compare to this.
“It’s as improbable as any scenario I could have conceived,’’ said trainer Steve Asmussen, whose favored Epicenter finished second after seemingly having the race in hand less than a furlong from the finish. “But that’s the Derby. It’s an event. And it doesn’t go as expected.”
And lordy, racing needed a moment like this, an implausibly giddy outcome that shook the cacophony of the stretch run into a stunned silence, as betters in silly suits and wild hats scanned their programs to identity the unlikely winner.
Indeed. Rich Strike.
This year racing came to Louisville in search of renewal, as ever, but even more than usual. In search of a more innocent time (although not that innocent, because it’s racing), like the winter of 2019, when racing was celebrating two Triple Crown winners in four years. That was before a disturbing spate of horse deaths in California, before the 2019 Derby disqualification of Maximum Security, and the protracted lawsuit that followed; before a confusing mess with the last Triple Crown winner, Justify; before the wiretaps and the revelations about systematic doping; before Covid and a soulless Labor Day Derby; before Medina Spirit and Baffert went down and more lawsuits. Before all of that. Rich Strike put joy back in the sport, put smiles on the faces of jaded railbirds, put wonder back in the game.
This is how it happened, on the track:
The giant Churchill Downs starting gate clanged open at 7:02 p.m., eliciting the customary roar. Straight for the gate, Summer Is Tomorrow (37-1) and Crown Pride (18-1) screamed into the lead and tore through the first, straight quarter mile in 21.78 seconds, the fastest in Derby history. They would pay: Summer Is Tomorrow finished last and Crown Pride 13th. Far behind them, Leon methodically angled Rich Strike diagonally across the track to a ground-saving position along the rail.
Down the backstretch, two races unfolded. Epicenter sat back behind the streaking leaders, waiting for their collapse. Zandon did likewise, slightly further back. Ten lengths behind, Leon began picking off horses, despite the traditional madness of the giant Derby field. “I started to push a little bit,” said Leon. “Because he’s a little bit lazy. I found a lot of traffic. And then I say, I have to wait until the stretch. That’s what I did, I wait for the stretch, and the rail opened up.”
Leaving the quarter pole, Epicenter darted into the lead. He had come to Kentucky off mature, professional wins in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. This was that horse at his best. But behind him, Blue Grass Stakes winner Zandon loomed. Two days before the Derby, Zandon’s trainer, Chad Brown, had said, “It’s going to be quite a matchup if these two horses can get good trips.” They got good trips, and this appeared to be that matchup.
“At that point, this is what you dream about,” said Asmussen. “We’ve got to hold off Zandon.”
As the crowd watched that battle, Rich Strike and Leon accelerated toward the final furlong and ran up on the highly regarded Messier, one of the two Baffert colts that had been transferred to former Baffert assistant Tim Yakteen. Leon seemed first inclined to stay on the rail, but Messier lugged in ever so slightly under rider John Velazquez. Leon snatched up Rich Strike and darted back outside, almost a right turn, a move that broke Rich Strike’s momentum. No matter, he quickly regained his speed, the type of recovery only the very best horses make. And the type of maneuver only the very best jockeys make, reminiscent of Calvin Borel’s rail shimmy on Mine That Bird.
“I said, what am I gonna do, he’s stopping in front of me,” said Leon. “Do you want to cut through or do you want to avoid him? I have to avoid him.” He watched a replay of the race as he spoke. “That’s what I’m watching right now,” he said. “I did the right thing, the winning move. It was the winning move.”
In 13 more jumps he was level with Epicenter and drew away to win by three-quarters of a length, a victory as convincing as it was shocking.
In the paddock, Reed fell to the matted grass and was hog-piled by a posse of friends and family in red Reed Racing baseball caps. Reed blamed his euphoric collapse on a chronic bad back. “My legs were buckling,” he said. “I just felt like I needed to stretch out, so I went down. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”
Leon said, “Fifteen gallops before the wire, I say, I think I got the race. And then I can say what I felt.’ Man, that’s real.”
Owner Richard Dawson captured another emotion: “What planet is this?” he asked at the winners’ press conference. “I feel like I’ve been propelled somewhere. This is unbelievable. I asked my trainer [at the victory ceremony], ‘Are you sure this is not a dream? Because it can’t be true.”
The path that brought Rich Strike to the Derby winner’s circle, with rose draped across his withers, began last Aug. 15, when he finished 10th and last in a maiden race at Ellis Park race track in Henderson, Kentucky. It is not the type of start that portends victory nine months hence in the Derby. But here we are. Reed had seen Rich Strike train promisingly on dirt, and thought there was something more in the horse (though not the Derby) if moved to dirt racing.
Thirty-three days later, Rich Strike was run in a claiming race, on the dirt at Churchill Downs, of all places. He won by a whopping 17 ¼ lengths. Reed and his longtime owner, Richard Dawson, claimed him. “I had no expectations like this at the time,” said Reed. “I just thought we made a good claim.”
“I guess we did.”
Reed brought to the Derby more than horse sense, thought he brought plenty of that. Her brought scars, too. In December of 2016, a windswept fire tore through one of the three barns at his Mercury Equine Center in Lexington, Reed’s hometown. Twenty-three horses died in the blaze and Reed did not have insurance on them. “I’m trying to wake myself up,” Reed told the Blood-Horse three days after the fire. “I’ll close my eyes and pretend I’m going to wake up and it was all just a nightmare. But that’s not going to be.”
Reed started training horses when his father gave him two horses when he was 18 years old; surely he was a lifer. But this? After the Derby, Reed said, “I thought of all the years and all the stuff we had done to get this beautiful farm, and to have this happen, that something might be telling me it’s the end of the line.” But support poured in. Other trainers offered to help him get going again. He was lifted by it all. “I just decided I wasn’t going to let it take me out.”
It wasn’t the last tragedy in his life: Reed said he has lost two assistant trainers to cancer in the last year. “I wish they were here with me,” Reed said. “I miss them dearly.” Life, being life.
After claiming Rich Strike, Reed rolled him back 22 days later in an allowance at Keeneland, where he finished third. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t improving. Julien Leparoux rode Rich Strike in the Keeneland race, and afterward told Reed, “This horse has got a lot of talent. He’s just green.” Reed pressed forward: Fifth, third, fourth, and finally, on April 2, five weeks before the Derby, third in the Jeff Ruby Stakes at Turfway Park, which gave him 20 points toward a Derby spot, enough to make the Top 25.
Defections moved him to 21st in Derby and when 86-year-old training legend D. Wayne Lukas scratched Ethereal Road just before nine Friday morning, Rich Strike was in. When head steward Barbara Borden called to inform Reed that he was in, Reed says, “I couldn’t even breathe to answer and say, ‘yes.’” (There is a lovely symmetry to Lukas being the trainer that opened a spot for Reed; on Friday afternoon, Lukas won the Kentucky Oaks with filly Secret Oath, an unlikely late-career-defining moment. Now the horses could face each other in the Preakness).
Thirty-four hours later Rich Strike flashed past the twin spires and beneath the finish wire. Reed and his family and friends – “The best people you’ll ever meet,” said Reed’s daughter, Shelby, tears streaming down her cheeks – spilled onto the damp, loamy surface of the most famous racetrack in America, hugging, laughing, weeping. They were children, playing in the mud, celebrating a rare innocence and genuine joy.
And for a day, so were we all.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.