Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 8, 2022

The Unlikely Road To Improbable Roses

After getting his start by training quarter horses for ten years, D. Wayne Lukas has been saddling thoroughbreds for more than four decades.  Through the ‘80s and ‘90s, before the role was taken, for better or worse, by Bob Baffert and his even whiter locks, Lukas with his snowy mane was the most recognizable horse trainer to all the casual fans who only check in on horse racing at Triple Crown time.  Still sending winners to the post at the age of 86 – the Lukas-trained Secret Oath captured the Kentucky Oaks on Friday – Lukas has fourteen wins in the three Triple Crown events, including four victories in the Kentucky Derby.  But none of Lukas’s big wins was as stunning as the one he had a hand in on Saturday, when 80-1 longshot Rich Strike charged along the rail during the stretch run of this year’s Derby, catching the tiring duo of prerace favorites Epicenter and Zandon in the final yards to become the horse with the second longest odds ever to capture the Triple Crown’s first jewel.

As shocking as the result was – Rich Strike’s late charge caught race announcer Larry Collmus by surprise, and the huge upset left the NBC announcing crew almost speechless – it was only possible because on Friday morning, Lukas decided to scratch Ethereal Road, the horse that would have been his 50th Derby runner.  Lukas said that Ethereal Road had not been training well, and he decided that his entry had no chance of capturing any piece of the $3 million purse, which is allocated among the top five finishers, much less actually winning the race.  Having reached that conclusion, Lukas chose to conserve his horse for future contests. 

Had he done so later in the day, nineteen horses would have gone to the post, but Lukas scratched Ethereal Road just before track officials set the Derby’s final field, which meant the next horse on the list of points earned in preliminary races from last September through mid-April drew in, taking over Ethereal Road’s number twenty post position.

That horse, surely the luckiest thoroughbred to ever not finish among the top twenty after all the Derby preps, was Rich Strike.  The 3-year-old chestnut colt earned that spot on the points list not by winning races.  The horse’s only victory in seven previous starts came in a 1-mile, $30,000 claiming race last September.  That is a race, decidedly not a Derby prep, in which any of the entrants can be purchased – “claimed – for the stated amount.  On the strength of that performance, trainer Eric Reed filed such a claim on Rich Strike for owner Richard Dawson. 

Wearing the red and white colors of Dawson’s RED-TR Racing stable, Rich Strike never ran better than third in five races prior to Saturday.  But one of those third-place finishes came five weeks ago in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, which is on the official “Road to the Derby” list, and that result was good for 20 points.  One month earlier, Rich Strike had finished fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial, also a Derby prep with one point awarded for fourth place.  Those 21 total points were just enough to edge Dawson’s horse into position to make it to the starting gate if any of the twenty entrants dropped out.  Then, in the nick of time, one of the most successful trainers ever did just that with his horse.

The full turn of events is even more improbable when one looks at the complete list of horses that earned points in the various Derby preps.  As is typical every year, several bypassed the race, either because of injury or conditioning or because their connections believed, like Lukas on Friday, that despite the points won over the preceding months, the horse wouldn’t be competitive.  On the full list of potential Derby entrants, Rich Strike finished not 21st, but 30th.

Yet against such long odds, the horse was on the track at Churchill Downs as the clock struck post time.  Surely it was a surreal experience for owner Dawson and trainer Reed, neither of whom had ever sent a horse to the gate in a Triple Crown race.  Appropriately enough, Rich Strike’s jockey was Sonny Leon, a veteran rider who has built a successful career far from the roaring crowds and high stakes of major races.  Like the owner and trainer, Leon was making his Triple Crown race debut.  While the far more famous jocks in the race had spent Friday at Churchill, running in the Oaks and other well-paying races, Leon had been on six mounts up the road at Belterra Park in Cincinnati, an old track until now best known as the place Hall of Fame jockey Steve Cauthen got his start as an apprentice in 1976, two years before becoming the youngest rider to win the Triple Crown, aboard Affirmed.

But if Leon was new to the Derby, it certainly wasn’t his first horse race.  Rich Strike broke cleanly, but rather than run down the front stretch on the far outside, greatly lengthening the race’s distance, Leon immediately pulled back and steered hard left across the track towards the rail.  That left Rich Strike near the back of the pack, ahead of just three horses going into the first turn.  But far ahead of Leon and his mount, the tandem of Summer is Tomorrow and Messier were playing a critical role in determining the eventual winner.  The two horses set blazing early fractions of 21.78 seconds for the first quarter mile, and 45.36 for the half, the former the fastest opening two furlongs in Derby history.  But rather than opening a wide lead, like engines pulling a train the two speed demons took most of the field along with them as they motored down the back stretch.

On the race replay – because really, who was watching an 80-1 shot during the race – one can clearly see Rich Strike start a determined run on the far turn, weaving between horses and steadily moving up.  Then, as the field entered the stretch, and with ten horses still to beat, Leon dropped Rich Strike to the rail.  But for a quick swing around an exhausted Messier, there jockey and horse stayed all the way down the stretch.  Still, the attention of Collmus, fans in the stands, and viewers at home was on the duel between Epicenter and Zandon, until suddenly, with a flash of red and white, it became apparent just how tired those two were from the early pace.  Rich Strike rolled past them as if he were the only horse still moving forward, with a stunned Collmus at last calling his name in the final strides.

Over the decades of his lengthy career, D. Wayne Lukas has often responded to questions about why he was running some horse in a particular race with, “you can’t win if you don’t run.”  Given that, of all the many things that had to go exactly right for this year’s Kentucky Derby to have such a storybook ending, perhaps the most unlikely was that on Friday Lukas would decide that his horse couldn’t win even if it did run.  But one day later, Sonny Leon, Eric Reed, Richard Dawson, and, most of all, Rich Strike, proved the legendary trainer’s point.

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