LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jockey Sonny Leon and trainer Eric Reed hit the ground running in every way imaginable for the Kentucky Derby.
Rich Strike did both one better after his last-minute Derby entry, blowing past 80-1 odds and then Epicenter and Zandon in the stretch Saturday for one of the biggest upsets in Derby history.
Rich Strike made it look so easy at the end that the biggest challenge for Leon and Reed was getting their minds around winning the sport’s marquee event on their very first try.
“We had a difficult post but I know the horse,” Leon said about Rich Strike’s No. 20 far outside starting spot. “I didn’t know if he could win but I had a good feeling with him.
“I had to wait until the stretch and that’s what I did. I waited, and then the rail opened up. I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. Nobody knows my horse like I know my horse.”
That connection between horse and rider was clear as Leon guided Rich Strike from 15th after a mile behind contender Messier on the rail in the stretch. As Epicenter and Zandon battled for the win, Leon angled his mount to the right, split two horses and blasted past the leaders for the highly improbable win.
Nobody saw Rich Strike coming, figuratively or literally. Nor could they do anything about him.
“Everything was perfect. We thought we were home," said Epicenter's jockey, Joel Rosario. "Too bad that horse got us right at the end. I thought Epicenter ran a tremendous race. He did everything. He responded when I asked him. We ran too good to get beat.”
Epicenter's trainer, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen was even more stunned at having his first Derby win painfully snatched away in the stretch yet again.
“I can’t believe it after Epicenter’s 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. I got beat by the horse that just got in.”
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The pieces began coming together on Friday when Ethereal Road was scratched, denying Hall of Fame trainer and four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas his 50th starter. That opened the door for Rich Strike, who breezed 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 atop five mounts at Belterra Park near Cincinnati. Some details remained Saturday at Churchill Downs, but Reed wasn't stressed.
Rich Strike demonstrated why with a run for the ages.
“We had pretty much everything wrapped up yesterday and what I told everybody that came with me, I said, ‘This is gonna be a fun day,'" he said. "The pressure's not on us. We’re a longshot.
"Everybody enjoy it, we might not ever get the chance again so let’s not waste the day worrying.’ And we all painted our little pinky golden for luck. We had a few drinks, barbecue, we had a great time and like a friend of mine told me, we had great karma all day and here we are.”
At that point a bunch of painted pinkie fingers went up around the interview room from the horse's ownership connection, a fitting celebration after everything came up roses in the Derby.