Michael TaubeThis past Saturday’s 148th Kentucky Derby, one of the three jewels of the American Triple Crown with the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, produced a great moment in horse racing history. It’s a heartwarming tale of a longshot horse that barely made it into the race, and a trio of individuals who had never participated in the “race for the roses.”

Some horses have won one, two or, in rare instances, all three legs of this racing series.

Sir Barton became the first to win the Triple Crown in 1919. The legendary Man o’ War skipped the Derby in 1920 but won the Preakness and Belmont. Canada’s Northern Dancer won the Derby and Preakness in 1964 and finished third in the Belmont. There was a 37-year gap between Triple Crown winners Affirmed (1978) and American Pharoah (2015)

There have been upset winners, too.

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The biggest Derby surprise was Donerail in 1913. A 91-1 longshot, owner Thomas Hayes’s instruction to jockey Roscoe Goose was to earn a “piece of the purse” by finishing the race. The horse exceeded expectations, beating favourite Ten Point in an eight-horse field. It earned a US$184.90 payoff for a $2 bet, which remains the biggest in Derby history.

Donerail would only win 10 of 62 races – although he reached the leaderboard in half of them – and retired in relative obscurity. Hayes, a respected Louisville native, became only the second person to own, breed and train a Derby winner.

Goose, also a Louisville native, became a highly respected elder statesman. “The Golden Goose” trained and owned horses. He was instrumental in helping jockeys like Eddie Arcaro and Charlie Kurtsinger, who won the Triple Crown with War Admiral in 1937. As his great-niece, Carla Grego, said during a 2014 Kentucky Educational Television special, “I never heard anybody speak an ill word of him. Anybody that talked about him talked about what a gentleman he was.”

More than a century later, another upset may have knocked the legendary tale of Donera

il down a peg. That’s when the world witnessed 80-1 longshot Rich Strike strike it rich at the Derby.

Rich Strike was bred at the Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. His dam was Canada’s Gold Strike, who won four of nine races and was named Canadian Champion Three-Year-Old Filly in 2005. His sire was Keen Ice, who won 3 of 24 races – including a massive upset victory over American Pharoah at the 2015 Travers Stakes.

Alas, this horse didn’t have a stellar record. In seven previous races, his only victory was at last September’s Maiden Claiming at Churchill Downs, the Derby’s home. An impressive 17 1/4 lengths encouraged trainer Eric Reed to purchase him for US$30,000 on behalf of Richard Dawson’s RED-TR Racing.

Reed has trained horses since 1983. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Herbert, who apprenticed under trainer/owner/breeder Mack Miller. Dawson, who had a long career in the oil and gas industry, is a relative newcomer who purchased his first horse in 2019.

The other piece of the puzzle is Venezuelan-born Sonny Leon. The relatively unknown jockey “had such a light footprint in North American horse racing,” the Lexington Herald Leader noted on May 9, that “he had never won a graded stakes race.” Nevertheless, Leon has been a “regular rider far from horse racing’s brightest lights at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Youngstown, Ohio,” and he, in fact, “does win races, having won 226 in 2021 out of a whopping 1,125 starts.”

Rich Strike almost didn’t make it into the Derby.

A third-place finish at last month’s Jeff Ruby Steaks gave the horse 20 points in the 2022 Road to the Kentucky Derby. This put the colt just outside the bubble in the also-eligible list. On Friday at 8:45 am, Reed was told there were no scratches in the field. Disappointed, he still planned to enter Rich Strike in the Peter Pan Stakes. An unexpected last-minute scratch of Ethereal Road, which Dawson told ESPN on May 7 occurred “about 30 seconds before the deadline,” got them in under the wire.

The amazing wild horses of Sable Island by Geoff Carpentier
Sable Island is a protected National Park Preserve overseen by Parks Canada staff

In one of the deepest fields in recent history, Rich Strike went from 20th position to overtake favourites like Epicenter, Zandon and Taiba. Leon rode the horse masterfully. He zigged and zagged in heavy traffic after a tough start, hugged the rail, made up significant ground, and streaked past the competition at the end.

“I never dreamed I would be here,” said Reed. “I never thought I’d have a Derby horse. I never tried to go to the yearling sale and buy a Derby horse. So this was never in my plans … It’s a horse race, and anybody can win. And the tote board doesn’t mean a thing.”

He, along with Leon and Dawson, are enjoying a spotlight they never expected to shine on them.

In a sport that was crushed after Medina Spirit’s disqualification at last year’s Derby, this was the feel-good story that horse racing needed. It would also attract national attention if Rich Strike actually wins the Triple Crown.

That’s getting a little ahead of ourselves, of course.

For now, let’s enjoy this rich moment in horse racing history when the roses struck an unexpected target and made the world cheer in unison.

Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. For interview requests, click here.

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