By Jim Gazzale
Where does Rich Strike, the 80-1 longshot winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, land among the great racehorses of our time? Certainly nowhere near the top. The “Also Entered” Derby seized its opportunity in May, shocking the horse racing world when jockey Sonny Leon weaved his way down the Churchill Downs stretch to claim an improbable victory in America’s greatest race.
Since then, however, Richie’s connections have apparently tried to capitalize on his popularity in bizarre ways, and it’s gotten tiresome.
First was the decision to skip the Preakness. Sure, coach Eric Reed said Rich Strike needed some time to recover and running back to Baltimore two weeks later would be too tough. Okay, he’s fine with the horse. Anyway, it’s a special decision.
After a not-so-great finish in the Belmont Stakes in June, his connections said he didn’t like the track. A few days before, however, his rider said he liked the track and wanted to continue running during a few morning gallops. So which one was it?
After the Belmont Stakes, he trained until the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in late August. He ran an unthreatened fourth in the Midsummer Classic behind Epicenter, Cyberknife and Zandon.
The talk coming out of the Travers was that Rich Strike had validated his Derby win with his effort at Saratoga. If being beaten 5 1/2 lengths validates a previous win, then sure, but he’s never been a contender here…or in the Belmont, if we’re being honest.
Back at Churchill Downs in October for the Lukas Classic, Richie took a solid second to Hot Rod Charlie. This is where things start to get murky for Rich Strike’s legacy. Rider Sonny Leon can be seen elbowing Hot Rod Charlie’s rider Tyler Gafflione. One can only assume that Leon knew he was beaten and tried everything he could, no matter how dangerous and arch league, to keep Hot Rod Charlie from getting through.
Leon claimed that his saddle had slipped and that was why he was leaning into Gafflione. When the entire horse racing world called Leon BS, Richie’s relations said Hot Rod Charlie (HRC) was wearing an illegal toe-grip shoe, sparking a week-long investigation into HRC’s footwear. It was a petty attempt to save face. Two months later, Rich Strike’s connections are still contesting the shoes. Again, tiring.
Rich Strike took on other top horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic a month later. He finished Flightline very well, but who didn’t? Most recently, he finished last in the Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs. His connections said race exit Rich Strike had a throat infection. That would explain the poor performance.
It feels like they’re trying to explain away every poor performance. Which, again, gets tiresome. Maybe Rich Strike isn’t good enough to win these races. It looks like it.
He will take a little break now for the winter and then train for the Dubai World Cup, which will be his first start in 2023. That’s the plan anyway.
To his and his managers’ credit, Rich Strike shows up to the dance. This is commendable in an era where we often never see the Derby winner race again after the Triple Crown season. He managed to win a lot of money candidates for the fourth. It’s a nice thing if you own, train or ride Rich Strike.
His Kentucky Derby victory was one of the most improbable of all time. We can’t take that away from him. But in the annals of history Rich Strike might be remembered more for all the folly that followed the First Saturday in May than his one significant victory.
PHOTO: Courtney Snow, Past The Wire