This year’s Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby seemed indicative of reaching for dreams, and how sweet it can be when they are realized. In the case of the Kentucky Oaks, it was seeing D. Wayne Lukas add another Oaks victory to his tally at the age of 86, and age doesn’t have to be an obstacle to success. Certainly in his case, as a racing icon, that should never be doubt but it was great to see him reach that pinnacle again. At the post-race press conference, he talked about realizing there was not a playbook for horse trainers to learn the trade, and he made a commitment to teach others along the way, many of whom have gone on to become top-notch trainers in their own right. The owners of Secret Oath, his latest Oaks winner, mentioned that as a service to racing. Lukas also spoke about the rapport he has with those he mentored to this day, and how horse racing can create a lasting bond. He also said he wanted the victory for the owners more than himself, since he’s already had that experience. While horse racing gets a lot of bad press and isn’t perfect, how it can unite and uplift people on the good days is worth noting.
Moving on to the Derby, it turned out Lukas had an impact on its outcome by withdrawing Ethereal Road the day before it ran, citing him not seeming quite as good as he had in his training earlier in the week and wanting to save him for the Preakness if that suited him, instead of use him hard in the Derby. That moved Rich Strike into the race, with less than an hour before another horse could draw in if one scratched. In fact, Rich Strike’s trainer Eric Reed later related that he had already been notified no horses scratched and he wasn’t in the race, since it was so close to the scratch time allowing another horse to draw in. But shortly after that, his exercise rider told him they did get in and he told her she had bad information, because they had removed the security guard from his barn. Then he got a call from steward Barbara Borden who asked him if he wanted to draw in from the also-eligible list, and he had to catch his breath to say yes.
I saw Rich Strike Tuesday of Derby week, during the designated training time for Derby and Oaks contenders. I didn’t realize until later he was also-eligible, and I didn’t know anything about his race record, but I did walk away impressed by his physical appearance.
It was just the beginning of one of the Kentucky Derby’s most improbable sequence of events and results. Summer is Tomorrow took the lead initially, setting fast fractions, and Crown Pride and Messier had a compelling duel among themselves before they fell back. It had been mentioned ahead of this Derby it seemed like an evenly matched field, or at least there were no superstar standouts but a lot of horses that had a chance to make a mark on the race. That appeared to hold true when in deep stretch it looked like a handful of horses began mounting challenges, although two touted as top contenders – Epicenter and Zandon – began a duel that appeared it would go right to the wire. Their battle for the lead was such a source of focus for most watching that few noticed the chestnut colt surge forward on the rail until he grabbed victory nearly at the last possible moment. It was Rich Strike, the horse who nearly didn’t get to run the race, under a masterful ride by Sonny Leon. He and the colt even had to go around a tiring Messier to seek the victory.
While I was watching the gate crew load Rich Strike, I was thinking how lucky they kept training him like he’d start that day. While his race record did not suggest Derby success was in the cards, the very improbability makes it more fantastic. The look on jockey Sonny Leon’s face after the race of amazement mingled with perhaps a touch of disbelief was the visual echo of the incredulity in Tom Durkin’s voice when he called Mine That Bird’s rail-skimming 2009 Derby win “an impossible result.” Yet the look on Leon’s face was not indicative of not having faith in the colt he rode; in the post-race press conference it was clear all the connections believed he belonged in the Derby, even if they weren’t sure being the victor was how it would play out for him. But Leon was riding his first Derby ever – easy to see how that feeling would sweep over him after the win!
Trainer Eric Reed recounted thinking he knew they had a good horse, maybe a Derby horse, and then he and the owner worked backwards from the first Saturday in May to pick spots to hopefully get to the Derby. He quoted bass fisherman Mike Iaconelli, who said, “Never give up.” Things like this can be inspiring to people even outside the circle of those connected to the horse, and that quote from Iaconelli and how it all played out spoke volumes to me, as I’ve been facing physical challenges from an accident that have kept me from work and been tough to persevere through, and this result is such a feel-good story for the connections and for what it says to me to keep going through obstacles and when odds can be stacked against you.
As Reed relayed how he found out Rich Strike drew in, it became more evident why the “don’t give up” quote resonated so deeply. “We knew what we had. I’m not telling you by any means we’d have the Derby winner but if we didn’t think we were going to be in the Derby we wouldn’t have been prepping for this all year. We know we had a horse that was going to be capable of running good. So anybody that’s in this business – lightning can strike.
“I had a guy that was assigned to us and he would give me a lot of information every day, each time a horse would withdraw, and one time we were twenty-fourth and we got up to twenty-second. And then the Lexington Stakes came and we were back to twenty-fourth. We came here on a prayer and I told my dad and I told Rick the worst thing that could happen to us is they call a day or two before the Derby and say, ‘You’re going to get in,’ and not be prepared. We trained against all odds, nobody thought we could get in, we got a defection, we got another one. The morning of the entries at 8:45 I was notified there were no scratches. We were not going to get in. The security guard was told to leave the barn. I texted my dad it didn’t happen, texted some friends, ‘We didn’t get in. Sorry guys.’ I went in to my crew because I knew they were going to be really let down and I said, ‘Guys, we didn’t make it but we were number 21.’ And I said, ‘We’ve got to get ready for the Peter Pan next week. If we run well, we’ll go to the Belmont and show them we belong.’ And I was trying to keep their spirits up. It didn’t matter how I felt. I had to keep my crew going, and they were really sad.
And then about five minutes to 9, my pony girl Fifi calls me on the phone and she goes, ‘Don’t do anything with your horse. Don’t move him.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She calmed down and said, ‘No, you’re getting in.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. Somebody gave you bad information.’ And she goes, ‘I’m telling you, I just got notification Wayne is scratching and you’re going to get in.’
Then Barbara Borden calls, and she says, ‘This is the stewards. Tomorrow in the twelfth race, the Kentucky Derby, do you want to draw in off the also-eligible?’
And I couldn’t even breathe to answer to say yes. I was like, ‘What just happened?’ I was told no, I lost my security guard and now I’m in.”
The morning after the Derby, Reed told gathered media, “I don’t get these horses, 10 or 12 a year like some. I get one a lifetime, so I’ve got to protect him. I’d like him to be here in a couple years and not just have a few races and something goes wrong.”
Reed said Rich Strike will ship to his private training center in Lexington while they assess if he looks set to contest the Preakness. When asked if he felt an obligation to go to the Preakness, he replied, “My obligation is to Rich Strike first, and if Ritchie’s ready to go and I think it’s the right thing for him, we’re gonna go. I need him around a long time. As long as he’s okay after a week and I know it’s the right thing to do we’ll do it. And I want to go – that’s naturally what we want to do – but I have to do what I’ve done from day one with this horse and that’s manage him to take care of him, cause he’ll take care of the rest if I do.”
A toast to the newest Derby winner!