By Jim Gazzale
Where does Rich Strike, the 80-1 long shot winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, land among the great race horses of our time? Certainly nowhere near the top. The Derby “Also Entered” capitalized on his opportunity back in May, shocking the horse racing world, when jockey Sonny Leon weaved his way down the Churchill Downs stretch to score the improbable victory in America’s biggest race.
Since then though, Richie’s connections have seemingly been trying to capitalize on his popularity in bizarre ways and it has become tiresome.
First it was the decision to skip the Preakness. Sure, trainer Eric Reed said Rich Strike needed some time to recover and running back in Baltimore two weeks later was going to be too tough. Fine, they’re doing right by the horse. Regardless, it’s a peculiar 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 prior though his exercise rider said he liked the track and wanted to keep running during a few routine morning gallops. So which was it?
Following the Belmont Stakes he trained up to the Travers Stakes at Saratoga at the end of August. He ran a non-threatening fourth in the Midsummer Classic behind Epicenter, Cyberknife and Zandon.
The talk coming out of the Travers was that Rich Strike validated his Derby win with his Saratoga effort. If getting beaten 5 1/2 lengths validates a prior victory then sure, but he wasn’t ever really a contender in here… or in the Belmont either if we’re being honest.
Back at Churchill Downs in October for the Lukas Classic Richie ran a solid second to Hot Rod Charlie. It’s here 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 in deep stretch. One can only assume Leon knew he was beat and was trying anything he could, no matter how dangerous and bush league, to prevent Hot Rod Charlie from going by.
Leon claimed his saddle slipped and that’s why he was leaning into Gafflione. When the entire horse racing world called BS on Leon, Richie’s connections said Hot Rod Charlie (HRC) was wearing an illegal toe grab shoe, sparking a weeks long inquiry 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, tiresome.
Rich Strike took on other top horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic a month later. He finished well back of Flightline, but who didn’t? Most recently, he finished last in the Clark Stakes back at Churchill Downs. His connections said coming out of the race Rich Strike had a throat infection. That would explain the poor performance.
It feels as though they’re trying to explain away every poor performance. Which, again, gets tiresome. Perhaps Rich Strike just isn’t good enough to win these races. It appears that way.
He’ll get a bit of a break now for the winter and then train up to the Dubai World Cup, which will be his first start of 2023. That’s the plan anyway.
To his credit, and the credit of his handlers, Rich Strike shows up to the dance. That’s commendable in an age where we oftentimes never see the Derby winner race again after the Triple Crown season. He’s been able to make a lot of money running for fourth. That’s a beautiful thing if you own, train, or ride Rich Strike.
His Kentucky Derby win 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 silliness that followed the First Saturday in May than his lone meaningful victory.
PHOTO: Courtney Snow, Past The Wire