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What happened to Kentucky Derby hero Rich Strike? Comeback in the works after uneven results

LOUISVILLE — A year ago, Rich Strike delivered one of the biggest upsets and most compelling stories in the history of the Kentucky Derby.

With just one win in his seven previous starts, Rich Strike didn’t even qualify for the Derby field initially but got in off the alternates list on Friday morning when another horse scratched. Dismissed at 80-to-1 odds, Rich Strike settled in well off a fast pace, made progress around the far turn and then improbably snuck up on the inside of favorites Epicenter and Zandon to become the second-biggest longshot to ever win the roses.

Beyond the mere magnitude of the upset, the Rich Strike story resonated beyond the usual Triple Crown viewership because of his humble beginnings.

Owner Rick Dawson, who bought Rich Strike for $30,000 out of a claiming race as a 2-year-old, was more or less new to the business having owned only a handful of cheap horses. The trainer, Eric Reed, had been around the Kentucky and Ohio racing circuit forever but never won a race of that caliber. And Sonny Leon, the jockey, hadn’t even won a graded stakes race before his picture-perfect Derby ride.

Sonny Leon aboard Rich Strike celebrates winning the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in 2022.
Sonny Leon aboard Rich Strike celebrates winning the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in 2022.

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What has happened to Team Rich Strike since then?

Uneven results for Rich Strike to end 2022

Rich Strike ran five more times after the Derby without a victory. After Dawson and Reed made the unconventional decision to skip the Preakness, saying the two-week break wasn’t enough time for Rich Strike to recover from a tough race in the Derby, he came back in the Belmont and was a well-beaten sixth.

After another 2 1/2-month break, Rich Strike wound up fourth to Epicenter in the Travers Stakes but made a good showing, finishing just a neck out of second. Back at Churchill Downs in early October, Rich Strike got nosed out by Hot Rod Charlie right at the wire in the Lukas Classic Stakes. Another solid effort in the Breeders’ Cup Classic put Rich Strike in fourth place before he wrapped up his season with a disappointing last place finish in the Clark Stakes last Nov. 25.

Post-Derby changes for jockey Sonny Leon

After his breakthrough ride, Leon decided last summer to move his home base from the cheap tracks of Ohio, Indiana and northern Kentucky to Gulfstream Park in South Florida where the purses are bigger and the jockey colony is more competitive. After some initial success – his mounts last year earned a career-high $5.7 million – Leon has slumped in 2023. The 32-year-old native of Venezuela is riding six or seven races a day at Gulfstream but has won just 6 percent of his starts compared to 15 percent a year ago.

Reed, whose horses run primarily at Belterra Park in Cincinnati and Mahoning Valley in Youngstown, Ohio, has also had a tough year so far in 2023. With just 14 wins from 118 starts, Reed is significantly off his career win pace of 16 percent.

Dawson, the owner, has not significantly expanded his stable after the Derby win. His RED-TR Racing has only had two horses run so far this year – 5-year-old Common Bond and 3-year-old filly Shewillghostu, who got her first win in February at Turfway Park.

Rich Strike comeback in the works

Though Rich Strike went winless after the Derby, his performances showed him to be an honest, hard-knocking horse if not a spectacular one. The Derby might have been an anomaly – Rich Strike benefitted from a suicidal pace and had everything fall into place during the stretch run – but he wasn’t a total fluke.

Rather than retire him to the breeding shed, as often happens with Derby winners, Dawson elected to keep him in training for a 4-year-old campaign.

After spending time on Reed’s farm over the winter, there was talk that Rich Strike might return for the $12 million Dubai World Cup or other lucrative races this spring for older horses. But a small setback in training has delayed his 2023 debut until this week when he is expected to enter the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes Friday on the Kentucky Oaks undercard.

Rich Strike got a nice half-mile breeze over the Churchill Track last week in 47.80 seconds, and Reed believes he is a significantly better horse now than he was last year on Derby Day.

"I’m really happy with him," Reed told the Daily Racing Form. "We’re really looking forward to a big year."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kentucky Derby hero Rich Strike has uneven results since 2022 victory