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Ashway: Anything but a ‘normal’ Kentucky Derby
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

This was supposed to be the year the Kentucky Derby returned to normal.

Saturday’s race was anything but.

Rich Strike, you bet!

And many did. A record $179 million was bet in the pari-mutuel pool. That’s 8% more than the record set I 2019, and a 17% increase over last year. Out of that $179 million, a paltry $501,135 was wagered on Rich Strike. That made him the least-favored horse in the field.

Rich Strike went off at 80-1 odds, and by all accounts should not have been in the running. In fact, he almost didn’t make the field. Only a Friday scratch of Ethereal Road by trainer D. Wayne Lukas enabled Rich Strike to get to the post.

“We found out about 30 seconds before the deadline on Friday,” owner Rick Dawson told ESPN.com. “It put us in the race. And, really, we always felt if we just got in, we’ve got a shot.”

Given a shot, Rich Strike wound up in the winner’s circle, the second longest shot to win in the Derby’s 148 runnings. Rich Strike paid $163.90 on a $2 bet, surpassed only by Donerail in 1913. Donerail went off at 91-1 and paid $184.90. But Donerail only had to beat seven horses. Rich Strike beat 19.

They call horse racing The Sport of Kings for good reason. The amounts spent on acquiring, maintaining, and training a thoroughbred for a shot at the Derby are staggering.

Rich Strike was purchased in a claiming race for $30,000. His trainer, Eric Reed, and jockey, Sonny Leon, were hardly household names. They are now.

Coming down the stretch, two of the favorites were battling for the lead. Epicenter is trained by Steve Asmussen, the winningest trainer in North America. He has saddled an astonishing 9,731 winners. Zandon’s trainer, Chad Brown, is a 4-time Eclipse Award champion.

Both horses were dusted by Rich Strike.

While the field chased Summer is Tomorrow through a blistering early pace, Rich Strike was having none of it. He was far back in 17th place through the first quarter-mile. He was 18th at the half, and 18th at three-quarters.

Leon wasn’t worried. “Nobody knows my horse like I know my horse,” he told The New York Times.

With a quarter-mile to go, Rich Strike was still off the pace in 15th place. And then, suddenly, off he went. With room on the rail, he blitzed past most of the field. Halfway through the stretch, Leon maneuvered him around Messier, and then slid him back to the rail. “When I was in the last 70 yards, I said, “I think I got this race!’” Leon told ESPN.com.

Rich Strike then sped to the wire, winning rather easily, and stunning the world. Even his trainer.

“I’m going to pass out, I’m so happy,” Reed told the Times. “This is the reason everybody does this. This is the most unbelievable day ever possible.”

Even more unbelievable considering what Reed went through five years ago, when he lost 23 horses to a barn fire at his Lexington, Kentucky training center. Reed thought that might be the blow that caused him to leave the sport.

But that wasn’t the case. “People I hadn’t seen, people I hadn’t talked to in years, my best friends, were there in the morning to pick me up,” Reed told espn.com. “It let me know there’s so much good out there. And then I just decided I wasn’t going to let it take me out.”

For Reed and Leon, this stunning win came in their very first Derby. It was owner Dawson’s first Derby as well. That’s quite a trifecta.

“What planet is this?” Dawson asked the Louisville Courier-Journal after the race. “I feel like I’ve been propelled somewhere. I’m not sure. This is unbelievable. I asked my trainer up on the stage, I said, ‘Are you sure this is not a dream? Because it can’t be true.’ He assured me this is real.”

Then Dawson noticed the time. “Oh, my God, did we just win in 2:02.6? I told my jockey, ‘Bring him home in 2:02.6 and we’ll win this.’ We just won in 2:02.61. Oh, my God, I just saw that.”

Can you imagine? One of the greatest upsets I sports history, and the owner had the longshot’s winning time within a hundredth of a second.

Reed wasn’t quite as confident as Dawson. “I didn’t think I could win, necessarily,” he told the Times. “But I knew if he got in, they’d know who he was when the race was over.”

“I’ve never, ever felt that life puts a cap on what you can do, and there’s nothing you can do to change it,” Dawson told the Courier-Journal. “I’ve never believed that. I always thought, ‘I’m as smart as the next guy. Maybe I can figure it out, maybe I can’t.’ But I always kept trying.

“And here we are.”