The colt’s jockey, trainer and owner are anything but racing royalty, but they are the kind of story the sport needs right now
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — By Sunday afternoon, Eric Reed’s eyes were hooded, and his voice was as scratchy as a transistor radio. He had been unable to sleep, thanks to the entirely welcome replay loop of his colt Rich Strike scooting up the rail of Churchill Downs and into the history books as the 80-1 winner of the 148th Kentucky Derby.
Reed was the sole spokesman — for now at least — of this impossible dream. The horse’s jockey, Sonny Leon, who was equally little known before Saturday, was on his way with his family to Florida for a vacation that was on the calendar long before Rich Strike became an 11th-hour entrant in the Derby.
When you crisscross Ohio and Kentucky to ride more than 1,100 races a year, you take days off where you can find them. Leon was fine bringing his wife and 2-month-old daughter to Churchill Downs for a slight detour.
After all, the Derby is the race that defines American thoroughbred racing.
Perhaps only the most dedicated railbirds knew Leon’s name at post time. Leon had never won a graded stakes race, considered the majors of the sport, before Saturday. He never had a mount in the Derby.
No worries. A 32-year-old Venezuelan, Leon treated it like the fifth race at Belterra Park or at Mahoning Valley, casino racetracks in Ohio where the patrons come more for the ding, ding, ding of slot machines than to watch thoroughbreds run around in a circle.
Leon was going to give Rich Strike the same effort that made him the 11th-ranked jockey in the nation when it came to victories in 2021. (The small payoffs for those wins kept him relatively obscure.) And he didn’t fret that 65 other riders made more money than he did.
Was he nervous? Not at all.
“I’m excited,” he said. “First time in the Kentucky Derby. I got a horse.”
Life couldn’t get better than that. Until it did.
Now the newcomers intend to take Rich Strike to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes on May 21 to race in the second jewel of the Triple Crown. They, along with the horse’s owner, Rick Dawson, have an opportunity to reboot a sport battered by a disqualified Derby winner in 2021 and by suspended trainers, doping convictions and dead horses.
“We sure need it,” said Reed, 57, referring to the boost Rich Strike has given racing. “And here we are, some little guys who can help the sport. We showed that we can make these things happen with some luck, hard work and doing things the right way.”
Reed has had to stand tall before. He learned his craft from his father, Herbert, a former trainer, who stayed by his son’s side for the entire Derby experience.
“He’s been going to the track with me since he was 6 years old, and that’s no bull,” Herbert Reed said. “He would go every day. And when he was 8, he could put a spider bandage on a horse, and most people don’t even know what it is anymore.”
When Eric Reed told his father he wanted to skip college to train horses, Herbert Reed was happy that he had found something he loved to do.
“My dad gave me two horses and said, ‘You want to be a trainer?’” Eric Reed recalled. “‘Here’s two horses. You’re a trainer.’”
More than 9,000 races and 1,445 victories later, mostly racked up on the backwater tracks of Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana and Kentucky, Reed’s horses have earned more than $24 million in purses. The $1.8 million first-place check for winning the Derby was a windfall, but not enough to give Reed a life of ease. This week, he will saddle horses at Horseshoe Indianapolis, Mountaineer in West Virginia and Belterra.
Six years ago, Reed thought he might be out of the horse business. A lightning strike ignited a fire that killed 23 horses at his Mercury Equine Center in Lexington, Ky.
“The next morning when we saw the devastation — because this happened in the middle of the night — I just thought of all the years and all the stuff we had done to get this beautiful farm,” Reed said. “And to have this happen, something might be telling me it’s the end of the line.”
Instead, the next morning, friends showed up to lift Reed’s spirits and begin rebuilding. Within days, horse lovers — strangers — showed up at the farm to pitch in.
“And then I had a few trainers that sent me texts,” Reed said. “Some big trainers, the guys you know well, that told me, ‘Don’t let this take you out,’ and ‘We’ll help you.’”
It kept him going.
“And thank God, we’re here today,” Reed said.
So, it’s on to Baltimore with a horse that cost $30,000, a hardworking jock badly in need of a vacation and an owner currently with one horse in training: Rich Strike.
Don’t count them out.
“I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve had some really nice horses, and we knew what we had,” Reed said. “We knew we had a horse that was capable of running good. And so, anybody that’s in this business, lightning can strike.”