Saturday’s 148th running of the $3 million Kentucky Derby (G1) proved to be a stunner. Let’s examine three takeaways.
Something to see but impossible to envision
Overlooked as the 80-1 longest shot among 20 runners, Rich Strike closed quickly into contention up the rail entering the stretch, tipping out only briefly to pass a tiring rival in midstretch, and the mud-covered chestnut carried his momentum to wire, overhauling Epicenter in the final strides.
It was an eye-catching turn of foot, and Kentucky Derby winners seldom prevail late like Rich Strike, who was claimed for $30,000 from his second career start by owner Rick Dawson’s RED TR-Racing and trainer Eric Reed. Rich Strike convincingly won the maiden claimer at Churchill Downs last fall, his only victory from seven career starts prior to the Kentucky Derby.
Nobody saw it coming.
Rich Strike, who didn’t draw into the field from the also-eligible list until Friday morning, capitalized upon a blistering early pace (:21.78 and :45.36), rating nearly 20 lengths behind in 18th during the opening stages before launching his rally leaving the backstretch, and jockey Sonny Leon keenly held his inside position after rushing into a wall of traffic midway on the final turn, waiting for a path to open.
As rivals drifted out exiting the turn, opening the necessary seam, Rich Strike came charging powerfully into the stretch drive, dramatically getting up by three-quarters of a length on the wire, and he received a 102 Brisnet Speed rating for his initial stakes win.
From the first crop of Keen Ice, who is best known for upsetting American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers (G1), Kentucky-bred Rich Strike counts two-time Horse of the Year Curlin as his paternal grandfather and Smart Strike as his paternal great-grandfather. He’s out of Canadian champion Gold Strike, a daughter of Smart Strike, who is by the legendary Mr. Prospector, and Rich Strike is the 10th Kentucky Derby winner bred by historic Calumet Farm.
Rich Strike entered the Kentucky Derby off a belated third in the April 2 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway Park, finishing behind fellow Derby participants Tiz the Bomb and Tawny Port.
Tough, tough beat
Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Epicenter surged to a clear lead leaving the far turn, and he momentarily appeared home-free after turning back Zandon in midstretch, but the 4-1 favorite could not sustain it.
Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, Thoroughbred racing’s all-time leader by wins, is now 0-for-24 in the Kentucky Derby, including three seconds.
“I can’t believe it after Epicenter’s effort,” Asmussen said. “And, the scenario in which I went 0-for-24, you couldn’t make up. I got beat by the horse that just got in.”
The hot pace eventually caught up to Epicenter, who used his natural speed to establish a forward position, racing within striking range along the backstretch, and the classy colt tried to fight back when challenged late, giving way grudgingly. It was brutal loss.
Zandon, who loomed a menacing threat while advancing into contention off the far turn, lacked the necessary finishing kick but still performed respectably for third.
Early Preakness thoughts
Rich Strike probably won’t go favored in the Preakness (G1) on May 21, his odds figure to be in the single digits.
In 2009, 50-1 Kentucky Derby upsetter Mine That Bird went off at 6-1 in the Preakness two weeks later. He rallied for runner-up honors to Rachel Alexandra.
In 2005, Giacomo left the Preakness starting gate at 6-1 following his 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby, and he checked in a well-beaten third behind Afleet Alex.
Rich Strike is eligible to carry his form forward off the short rest, but similar to recent longshot Derby winners, a minor award may be his ceiling. He’s unlikely to receive the same favorable pace setup at Pimlico.