Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 12, 2022

No Fairy Tale Finish At Big Sandy

It was only five weeks ago, when for a moment horse racing fans dared to dream, when a thoroughbred fairy tale coming true was suddenly a very real prospect.  Rich Strike had just powered along the rail at Churchill Downs to stun the horse racing world with a Kentucky Derby victory as an 80-1 longshot.  The unheralded horse wasn’t even in the Derby until the day before the race, when Ethereal Road was scratched just minutes before the final field was set.  Rich Strike was in Louisville as the first alternate on the points list based on performances in specific races over eight months leading up to the first Saturday in May.  The horse’s only victory in seven previous starts was as a 2-year-old in a claiming race that resulted in Rich Strike becoming part of Richard Dawson’s RED-TR Racing stable.  With Eric Reed doing the training and Sonny Leon in the irons, Rich Strike managed a third-place finish in one prep race and was fourth best in another, earning just enough points to make the trip to Churchill Downs worthwhile, on the remote chance that a spot in the field opened up.

When it did, the horse few bettors cared about ran a brilliant race, following the plan of its equally unheralded trainer and guided by a successful but little-known jockey.  Reed and Leon are veteran horsemen, but because each has focused his career on smaller Midwestern tracks, where there is typically more action at the adjoining casino than at the horse racing betting windows, they were easy to dismiss, just like their mount.  But as all the famous entrants withered under a blistering early pace, Leon followed Reed’s instructions to lay back and hug the rail.  When a late opportunity arose, the jockey guided Rich Strike through the maze of tiring contenders before swinging back to the inside for a final stunning drive to the finish.

That was the moment when fans could imagine a dramatic equine Cinderella story, in which the horse and its unassuming connections raced into history by capturing the Preakness and Belmont, thus becoming the 14th and unquestionably least likely winner of the Triple Crown.  It would be an enormous boost to horse racing and bring a flood of positive publicity to a sport long dogged by problems of its own making.

Dreams though, are usually ephemeral, hard to recall in detail even shortly after one awakes.  And fairy tales are just children’s stories, fictions created to entertain impressionable minds, not the stuff of hard-bitten reality.  The moment passed, as almost always happens.  Within days of Rich Strike’s great triumph, owner Dawson announced that the horse would not run in the Preakness, pointing instead towards the Belmont, in keeping with the plan he and Reed had put together before the impossible happened at Churchill Downs.

Gone in an instant was that longed-for wave of feel-good stories, and so too was much of the interest, for all but the most avid racing fans, in the final two legs of this year’s Triple Crown.  Still, the lack of a compelling story didn’t mean the races were cancelled.

At Pimlico two weeks after the Derby, a field of nine was led to the wire by Early Voting.  The second choice of bettors at 5-1, the winner loped along comfortably behind the early speed of longshot Armagnac before moving to the lead on the far turn and then holding off favorite Epicenter’s late charge to win by a length and a quarter.  Winning trainer Chad Brown and owner Seth Klarman had opted to pass on the Derby, holding Early Voting for the race in Maryland.  It was a reprise of the scenario they followed in 2017, with equal success, when their colt Cloud Computing captured the race.

Then on Saturday, at the massive Long Island oval appropriately dubbed “Big Sandy,” the Belmont Stakes, oldest of the three Triple Crown races, was run for the 154th time.  A small field of seven colts and one filly went to the post.  Rich Strike was there as promised, but Early Voting was not, depriving racing fans who barely more than a month ago had been imagining an historic spring for their sport from even the small consolation prize of a faceoff between the winners of the Derby and the Preakness.

Perhaps that was just as well, for Rich Strike’s effort was doomed from the start.  Trainer Reed had said he did not want to see his horse running last, but that was exactly where Rich Strike was as the field rounded the first turn.  There was little improvement from there, with the Derby winner eventually coming home in 6th place.  After the race Reed took responsibility for the poor showing, admitting while utterly failing to explain his misplaced logic, that he had told jockey Leon to keep Rich Strike in the middle of the track, despite the horse’s documented preference for the rail.

Many lengths ahead of Rich Strike on Belmont Park’s home stretch, victory went to 3-1 favorite Mo Donegal.  The Todd Pletcher-trained horse took control at the beginning of the long final straightaway and easily bested filly stablemate Nest.  It was a bit of redemption after Mo Donegal earned the third most points in the Kentucky Derby qualifying races, only to be saddled with the dreaded inside post for that race.  Despite the starting handicap, Mo Donegal fought back to finish 5th at Churchill, presaging better races to come.

With the ideal story taken away, media coverage of the Preakness and Belmont focused on the local connections at both races.  Early Voting’s owner Klarman grew up three blocks from Pimlico, and this year’s race was run on his 65th birthday.  Mo Donegal’s trainer Pletcher is based in New York, and Mike Repole, the owner of both Mo Donegal and runner-up Nest, calls himself “Mike from Queens” and borrows the blue and orange of the New York Mets uniforms for the colors of his silks. 

But Klarman is a billionaire hedge fund investor, and Repole is a wildly successful entrepreneur who figured out just how valuable water can be, given a few additives and the right marketing.  He founded and eventually sold both Vitaminwater and Bodyarmor for a combined $9.7 billion.  Brown and Pletcher, the preferred trainers for these two, are among the elite in their industry, as are brothers Jose Ortiz and Irad Ortiz, Jr. who rode Early Voting and Mo Donegal to their victories.  They all reside at the top of horse racing’s pyramid, the kind of owners and trainers and jockeys one expects to see in the winner’s circle at Triple Crown races. 

Though not so long ago there was a moment, just a moment, when a very different story, involving a horse and trainer and jockey from the base of that pyramid seemed to be more than just a dream.  Perhaps the lesson for this increasingly fringe sport is not how far apart those two extremes are, but how very close.

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