Updated May 7, 2022 at 9:57 p.m. EDT|Published May 7, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. EDT
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
LOUISVILLE — The bugler at Churchill Downs knows you might have a question, a question he fields more than any other question, a question surely posed to many a bugler through time, an American question, a nosy question, a polite question: So what’s your full-time job?
Well, the bugler doesn’t just turn up on the Kentucky Derby infield and NBC telecast once a year to play the 34 notes of “Call to the Post,” the iconic strand of music technically named “First Call.” No, the bugler plays that and the national anthem through all the races at all the meets across all the year at Churchill Downs, which is not to mention that Steve Buttleman also plays at the Keeneland track in Lexington and at wedding receptions, Derby Museum functions, sporting events, corporate events and military funerals. “Every vet deserves to have a live bugler,” he said Friday morning. “It’s the least I can do for them.”
Celebrities flock to Louisville for Kentucky Derby
Around 150,000 attendees descended upon Churchill Downs, giving the venue a full capacity crowd after two years of coronavirus restrictions. Included in that group are star actors, athletes, and singers.
Former Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm is on hand, as are Hall of Famer signal caller Warren Moon and recently drafted Atlanta Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder. Drake crashed Rutledge Wood’s interview with Louisville rapper Jack Harlow, and WWE couple Bianca Belair and Montez Ford arrived in outfits with handmade touches by Belair. Also in attendance: celebrity chef Bobby Flay, actor Mario Lopez, and TV personality Star Jones.
Messier, named for Hall of Fame NHL center Mark Messier, will try to become the third Canada-bred horse to win the Kentucky Derby, following Northern Dancer (1964) and Sunny’s Halo (1983).
After drawing post position No. 6, he was installed as the third betting choice at 8-1 on the morning line behind Zandon, the favorite at 3-1, and Epicenter (7-2). With his combination of speed, running style and pedigree, the talented colt looks poised to win this year’s Derby. And while there are other colts in the field that also have the tools for a successful run Saturday, it is rare to see these attributes mesh as perfectly as they do for Messier. That’s why he will feature in my trifecta and superfecta strategy.
To make sure the horse would be eligible for Saturday’s Run for the Roses, embattled trainer Bob Baffert — serving a two-year suspension at Churchill Downs — transferred Messier to Tim Yakteen, a former Baffert assistant who went out on his own in 2004. In his first and only start for Yakteen, Messier ran a game second in April’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, finishing 2¼ lengths behind Taiba. Jockey John Velazquez has ridden Messier in his past two races and will be back in the saddle for the Derby. That consistency is key because it appears Velazquez knows how to take advantage of the horse’s best traits: his speed and versatile running style.
For the third consecutive year, the conditions at Churchill Downs are rated “fast,” as a cloudy Louisville sky has cleared throughout the afternoon.
The AccuWeather forecast, which projected an 80 percent chance of rain earlier this week, no longer anticipates precipitation for Saturday’s main race. Rain that poured over the area Thursday night into Friday was expected to impact race odds if it continued into Saturday, but early runs have enjoyed relatively clear weather.
Trainer Bob Baffert’s absence looms over 148th running
This time last year, trainer Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit won the Kentucky Derby, although its first-place finish was just the beginning of a saga that saw the disqualification of that result, the suspension of Baffert, and the death of the three-year old colt.
Baffert, who was banned for two years by Churchill Downs, will catch this year’s Kentucky Derby from a watch party in Tucson, according to the NBC broadcast. Two of Baffert’s horses, Taiba and Messier, were transferred to his former assistant, Tim Yakteen, ahead of Saturday’s race.
Baffert’s horses and his absence have been a topic of conversation during the prerace broadcast, which highlighted the new addition of 24-hour video surveillance in the barns at Churchill Downs, meant to provide greater documentation in the event of postrace violations.
NBC’s Mike Tirico sat down with Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen before the Derby to discuss Baffert’s suspension.
“It’s the totality of the circumstance,” Carstanjen said, explaining the rationale behind Baffert’s suspension. “We haven’t had a drug failure since 1968 in the Kentucky Derby. So, the fact that Bob had the positive in the derby was a pretty profound problem for all of us, but to top that off, he had a drug positive for the exact same substance the year before in our other major race, the Kentucky Oaks; and clearly that demonstrates that he hadn’t learned his lesson, that he hadn’t taken responsibility, and we needed to make sure that he understood the consequences.”
Baffert’s Churchill Downs ban preceded a 90-day suspension by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Tirico later asked Carstanjen about Baffert’s potential return to the Louisville venue.
“He’s got to complete a suspension and he has to behave during that suspension,” Carstanjen said of Baffert. “We are not a regulatory authority, we’re a private enterprise, so most states are recognizing the 90 day suspension that he’s been given by the Kentucky Horse Racing commission, but he still has international opportunities and other opportunities. So certainly it’s the case that we’ll be watching his behavior in those races, and certainly we hope that there aren’t further drug violations, and certainly we’ll be paying attention if there are.
“But let’s say there aren’t and he completes his two year suspension ... absent further facts, he should be free to race again here if he chooses.”
If there is rain at the Kentucky Derby, this 30-1 long shot could win it all
The Kentucky Derby has been run over a sloppy, wet or muddy track four times since it adopted its qualification point system in 2012. That could be the case again Saturday, with rain expected to blanket the Louisville area for much of the week until post time. The Accuweater forecast gives an 80 percent chance of rain on Saturday, with a 16 percent chance of thunderstorms — following a rainy day on Friday — necessitating an alternative handicapping scheme if a muddy or sloppy track indeed develops.
Mike Smith will become to oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby if co-favored colt, Taiba, crosses the line first. The 56-year-old New Mexico native previously won the Kentucky Derby atop Giacomo in 2005, then with Justify — who went on to win the Triple Crown — in 2018.
Guided by Smith, Taiba took first in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, beating stablemate Messier in a stunning performance. He is trying to become the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby in his third career start without having raced as a 2-year-old.
The most experienced jockey on the least experienced horse.
Bettors and casual fans will hear a lot about the top choices in this year’s Kentucky Derby, and for good reason. Zandon, the 3-1 favorite on the morning line, closed sharply to take the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes and was narrowly defeated by Mo Donegal in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes. He was also third behind Epicenter, this year’s second choice in the Derby at 7-2, in the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes. Meanwhile, Epicenter finished his preps with a big win in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, giving him a 164 Derby points, the most of any horse this year.
As good as those horses are, neither is a lock to win this year’s Run for the Roses. Zandon’s closing style and questionable pedigree leave plenty of doubt he can hit the wire first, while Epicenter will have to deal with an inside post, perhaps causing him to expend more energy than usual to get away from the gate quickly and avoid falling victim to traffic.
So what’s the alternative? You could go with Messier (8-1 on the morning line), my choice to win it all, or you could go bigger and look for one of the many horses that should offer odds of 20-1 or better at post time. If that’s your preference, here are two horses to be optimistic about in this year’s Derby, along with the odds I feel would be fair to warrant a winning wager Saturday.
For retired thoroughbreds, a Kentucky farm offers a serene final furlong
GEORGETOWN, Ky. — At this avant-garde farm, the oldest living Kentucky Derby winner, Silver Charm, 28, can gaze across at Swain, 30, whom he once dueled in Dubai, or look down the road toward Touch Gold, 27, who sneaked up and ruined Silver Charm’s Triple Crown bid at the 1997 Belmont. The 26-year-old gelding Summer Attraction can frolic with 29-year-old gelding Slamming some 22 years after they served as the exacta one forgotten day at the late Rockingham track in New Hampshire. Your basic golf cart ride can yield the sight of three beings who wrecked Triple Crown bids at Belmont — Touch Gold, Sarava (2002) and Birdstone (2004), the last one in a great big groan of a comeback to edge the beloved Smarty Jones.
“The villain of all,” Michael Blowen deadpanned.
They aren’t villains here, of course. They’re part of a tapestry that’s part of a trend: retirement homes for racehorses. At the very moment when animal lovers who wish racing would just go ahead and croak seem to have some momentum with horse deaths in focus in recent years, so does a cultural change from a thoughtless last century to a thoughtful this: the growing idea that slaughter isn’t cool.
At a Derby without Bob Baffert, rookies and grinders and stories abound
Trainer Todd Pletcher has his Derby entries Nos. 60, 61 and 62 since 2000; he’s such a mainstay around here as to be pretty much a third spire. (He has Wood Memorial winner Mo Donegal on the rail.) Trainer Steve Asmussen, winner of just about every other big thing from here to Dubai, tries again with Derby horse No. 24 since 2001, hoping second-favorite Epicenter will exceed Fifty Stars, Private Emblem, Quintons Gold Rush, Storm Treasure, Private Vow, Curlin, Zanjero, Pyro, Z Fortune, Nehro, Daddy Nose Best, Sabercat, Tapiture, Gun Runner, Creator, Lookin At Lee, Hence, Untrapped, Combatant, Long Range Toddy, Max Player, Midnight Bourbon and Super Stock.
What to know about horse racing
A beginner’s guide to betting on horse racing: Horse racing can be intimidating to newcomers. This guide will help you navigate the lingo, assist you in evaluating horses and give you the proper tools to enjoy a day at the races.
How to pick the winner of a horse race: It’s not enough to know which horse is the fastest or has the best connections. Here is how to break down a field.
Investigation: A years-long effort by the sport’s moneyed elite exposed the underbelly of the industry, paving the way for sweeping reforms. But critics see something different: a move by wealthy and politically connected horsemen to strengthen their hold on the industry.