LOUISVILLE, KY. — The name sounded good, but the horse hadn't exactly lived up to it. When Rick Dawson decided to claim Rich Strike, the colt had run only one time — and finished dead last.
Trainer Eric Reed still saw plenty to like, persuading Dawson to pay $30,000 to buy Rich Strike out of a claiming race last September at Churchill Downs. Saturday, horse, trainer and owner returned to Louisville to hit the mother lode in the Kentucky Derby. Rich Strike, the longest shot on the board, became one of the most improbable Derby winners of all time with a late dash up the rail at 81-1 odds.
In the span of 2 minutes, 2.61 seconds, Dawson's bargain purchase turned a $30,000 investment into a $1.86 million payday. Zandon, one of two Minnesota-owned horses in the field of 20, finished third, just behind Epicenter.
Epicenter seized the lead at the one-mile mark. Zandon was one length back in hot pursuit, and down the stretch, it looked like a two-horse race for the roses.
Then jockey Sonny Leon kicked Rich Strike into high gear along the inside. With the crowd watching in disbelief, Rich Strike blew past the leaders, rushing out of nowhere like a gust of wind.
"What planet is this?'' said Dawson, whose horses had been to the winner's circle fewer than 10 times before Saturday. "I feel like I've been propelled somewhere. I asked my trainer, 'Are you sure this isn't a dream? Because it can't be true.'
"This has got to be a feel-good story. I feel like the luckiest man alive.''
Rich Strike — whose only career victory had come in that maiden claiming race last fall — paid $163.60 to win. His odds were the second-longest of any Derby winner, behind only Donerail in 1913 (91-1). Epicenter finished three-quarters of a length behind, with Zandon, owned by Jeff Drown of St. Cloud, another three-quarters of a length back in third.
Zozos, owned by Barry and Joni Butzow of Eden Prairie, finished 10th. He was among the leaders through the first mile of the 1 ¼-mile race before fading.
Zandon's trainer, Chad Brown, had predicted a battle between Epicenter and Zandon. That's exactly what he saw, until Rich Strike crashed the party.
"We really had a great trip,'' Brown said. "Turning for home, [Zandon] was in a great position, and he was really battling with Epicenter. [Rich Strike] just snuck up inside.''
Brad Cox, who trains Zozos, had much the same reaction. He said Zozos was too close to the sizzling early pace, as Summer is Tomorrow and Crown Pride led the charge. Those two ripped through the first quarter-mile in 21.78 seconds and the half-mile in 45.36.
Like everyone else, Cox never saw Rich Strike until the final strides.
"I'm not sure where that horse was,'' Cox said. "He must have been in the back somewhere.''
The saga of Rich Strike will go down as a bluegrass fairy tale, one with an especially happy ending. Leon is a little-known rider who had never won a graded stakes race. Reed learned horsemanship from his father, Herbert, also a trainer, and thought his career was over after a devastating barn fire in 2016. A lightning strike started the blaze, which killed 23 of Reed's horses and destroyed all of his equipment and racing memorabilia.
Fewer than 40 hours before Rich Strike got his blanket of roses, Reed didn't even think he was in the race. The colt was No. 21 on the list of eligible horses, with only 20 allowed to enter.
Friday morning, Reed was told that none of the top 20 would scratch, leaving Rich Strike out of the Derby. The security guard assigned to his barn was told to leave, and Reed began spreading the disappointing news. A few minutes before 9 a.m. — the deadline for any changes — Ethereal Road dropped out, putting Reed, Dawson and Leon into the biggest race of their lives.
"I couldn't even breathe to answer and say, 'Yes!' '' Reed said. "I'm not telling you by any means we thought we had a Derby winner. But we knew we had a horse that was capable of running good.''
Rich Strike started on the far outside, in the No. 20 post. He lagged near the back through the first mile, in 15th place with a quarter-mile to go.
But Leon, Rich Strike's regular rider, could feel the horsepower underneath him. He tucked the colt in on the rail, swung outside to get around the slowing Messier, returned to the rail and turned Rich Strike loose.
"Fifteen gallops before the wire, I said, 'I think I got the race,' '' Leon said. "He didn't want to stop. He's a tough horse.''
Now, he's a Kentucky Derby champion.
"I didn't think I would win, necessarily,'' Reed said. "But I knew if I got in, they would know who [Rich Strike] was when the race was over.''