LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Jockey Sonny Leon and trainer Eric Reed hit the ground running in every way imaginable for the Kentucky Derby.
Rich Strike did better after entering the Derby at the last minute, topping the 80-1 odds then Epicenter and Zandon in the streak on Saturday for one of the biggest upsets in Derby history.
Rich Strike made it so easy in the end that the biggest challenge for Leon and Reed was to focus on winning the sport’s premier event on their first try.
“We had a tough post but I know the horse,” Leon said of Rich Strike’s No. 20 away from the starting line. “I didn’t know if he could win but I had a good feeling with him.
“I had to wait for the stretch and that’s what I did. I waited, then the rail opened. I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. No one knows my horse like I know my horse.
This connection between horse and rider was clear as Leon guided Rich Strike from 15th place after a mile behind competitor Messier on the rail in the stretch. As Epicenter and Zandon battled for victory, Leon banked his mount to the right, split two horses and passed the leaders for the highly unlikely victory.
No one saw Rich Strike coming, figuratively or literally. They couldn’t do anything against him either.
“Everything was perfect. We thought we were home,” said Epicenter jockey Joel Rosario. “Too bad that horse got us right in the end. He did everything. He answered when I asked him. We ran too well to be beaten.
Epicenter coach Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen was even more stunned to see his maiden Derby victory painfully snatched away in the stretch once again.
“I can’t believe it after the Epicenter effort,” said Asmussen, who lost the 2011 Derby when Nehro and Shackelford were beaten by Animal Kingdom.
“And, the scenario in which I went 0 for 24, you couldn’t make up for it. I was beaten by the horse that just entered.
The pieces began to come together on Friday when Ethereal Road was scratched, robbing Hall of Fame trainer and four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas of his 50th starter. That opened the door for Rich Strike, who clocked five furlongs in 59.60 seconds at Churchill Downs on April 27 and just had to wait for an opportunity.
As Reed helped that process unfold, Leon spent Friday recording three seconds on five mounts at Belterra Park near Cincinnati. Some details remained Saturday at Churchill Downs, but Reed was not stressed.
Rich Strike demonstrated why with a race for the ages.
“We had pretty much wrapped up yesterday and what I said to everyone who was with me, I said, ‘It’s going to be a fun day,'” he said. “The pressure is not on us. We are a long shot.
“Everyone benefits, we may never get the chance again, so let’s not waste the day worrying.” And we all painted our little golden rose for luck. We had a few drinks, had a BBQ, had a great time and as a friend of mine told me, we had great karma all day and here we are.
At that time, a bunch of painted pinkies rose in the interview room over the horse’s ownership connection, a fitting celebration after all was rosy in the Derby.
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