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Rich Strike, an 80-1 shot, wins the Kentucky Derby in a stunner

Rich Strike won the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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LOUISVILLE — The stuff of irrational daydreams and sugarplum fairies and future books and future movies and deathless wonder happened Saturday evening at the 148th Kentucky Derby, where a colossal stretch duel yielded suddenly and shockingly to an alternative reality.

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There, as favorites Epicenter and Zandon battled one another in their own storybook in the fumes of the stretch, an interloper appeared along the rail. Rich Strike, who did not even get into the Kentucky Derby until Friday morning, who had not won anything since a $30,000 maiden claiming race last September and who went off at 80-1, materialized and capitalized on the others’ dogged wane.

Then the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding Rich Strike won the Derby in 2 minutes 2.61 seconds by three-quarters of a length over Louisiana Derby winner Epicenter, with Blue Grass Stakes winner Zandon third. He paid a gigantic $163.60 to win. He became the second-most far-fetched champion in a race run since 1875, behind only Donerail in 1913. And he loosed all manner of quotations that tilted toward a merry absurdity.

Here spoke the owner, oil-and-gas Oklahoman Richard Dawson: “What planet is this?”

Here spoke the trainer, longtime Kentuckian plugger Eric Reed, training since 1983: “I saw him at the head of the stretch when he cut in, and then I passed out. I don’t remember what happened after that.”

The owner: “As far as my career in horse racing, I think it just started. (Pause.) I don’t think we’ve had a horse win an allowance race.”

The trainer: “I never dreamed I would be here. I never thought I would have a Derby horse. I never go to yearling sales and try to buy a Derby horse.”

The owner: “I didn’t get into this to win the Kentucky Derby — although I’m not giving the trophy back.”

The trainer: “A lot of people don’t know who I am, but I was that far from beating Zenyatta in 2010.” His bio lists that as one of his highlights, even as it’s technically not a win. He has won more than 1,400 races out there in the little-noticed frontier.

Wait, here’s the jockey: “A lot of people came up to me, ‘Hey, you are nervous?’ ‘I’m not nervous. I’m excited.’ . . . Nobody knows my horse.” He’s Sonny Leon. He’s one of those figures in horse racing who excel day upon day without anyone knowing. That can happen when one rides expertly at the Mahoning Valley Race Course in Youngstown, Ohio.

Come Friday morning, they didn’t even know they’d be in the race. Their horse stood 21st in the Derby points required to gain entry. They needed one scratch. At 8:45 a.m., Reed fielded a call informing him no scratch had come. “The [Derby] security guard,” Reed said, “was told to leave the barn.”

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Reed felt bad but felt worse for his team members. He went to inform them they would aim for the Grade 3 Peter Pan at Belmont Park and, if that worked out, they’d show ’em their supposedly improving horse weeks later in the Belmont Stakes.

About 10 minutes later, a little piece of Derby history involved a “pony girl, Fifi.” That’s how Reed described the yeoman worker who phoned him to say that, indeed, trainer D. Wayne Lukas and owners had decided to scratch Ethereal Road, right around the 9 a.m. deadline. The next call came from Barbara Borden, the chief steward. Would Reed like to enter Race 12 on Saturday?

“I couldn’t even breathe to answer to say yes.”

This band of Derby first-timers felt elation just to participate, and they went in against Epicenter, Zandon, Florida Derby winner White Abarrio (who would wind up 16th), Wood winner Mo Donegal (fifth), Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife (18th) and Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba (12th), plus Tiz the Bomb (ninth) and Tawny Port (seventh), both of whom had beaten Rich Strike in his most recent race, the Jeff Ruby Steaks (named for a popular restaurateur) at Turfway Park near Cincinnati.

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That claiming race Rich Strike had won last September also had happened at Churchill Downs, and had come by 17 lengths, but since then he had straggled to fifth place and a yawning gap shy of winner Epicenter in Louisiana and had lost thrice at Turfway, finishing a middling third, fourth and third.

“This is a game,” Reed said, “where this horse should have been 80-1 on paper, but we’ve been around him every day. Small trainer, small rider, small stable. You know, he should have been 80-1. But I’ve been around a long time.”

He had won his first stakes with Native Drummer in the Forego Stakes at Latonia, Ky. He had seen as his best win the Lexus Run Raven Stakes at Keeneland in 2009 with Quick Chick. He and his wife, Tammy, had endured horror in 2016, when they came home to a barn fire that killed 23 of their horses.

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Now he was in a Derby with an owner who has never owned more than six horses and a jockey who had never run a stakes race. “I didn’t think I would win necessarily,” Reed said, “but I knew if he got in they would know who he was before it was over.”

Now his horse got going with the big beasts from the outside post on a fast track beneath the day-long clouds, and his canny jockey saved ground by going to the rail. Now Rich Strike sat in 18th through a blistering opening half-mile (45.2 seconds) set by United Arab Emirates-based Summer Is Tomorrow and the Japanese Crown Pride, and then Leon patiently waited for some traffic to clear, reached third by the top of the stretch, and: “He answered so quick. I said, ‘Hey, I’ve got horse. I’ve got some horse to make something.’ ”

So then they came upon a duel, and now a horse claimed for $30,000 last last summer was turning up just behind the big-time duelers. He ran that rail just like the impossible Mine That Bird in 2009, and soon the final furlong would come, and an unknown winner would set 150,000 abuzz even more than usual.

Soon Reed’s father, Herbert, who trained for years in quiet and honorable toil with trainers such as Mackenzie Miller, the 1993 Derby winner with Sea Hero, would sit next to his son on an interview dais. He would say, “When he was 8, he could put a spider bandage on a horse. Most people don’t know what that is.” And he would begin to cry, in pride and in the prevailing emotion of the day, a steep disbelief.

— Chuck Culpepper

This story has been be updated. Highlights from the Kentucky Derby, by Glynn A. Hill in Washington, are below.