Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike went viral Saturday, and not just for his 80-1, long shot victory that upset field favorites like Epicenter (4-1), Taiba (5-1) and Zandon (6-1).
In the moments after he crossed the finish line, as spectators in the stands erupted into a roar, video and images showed outriders on the track struggling to get Rich Strike under control as he repeatedly bit the lead pony and its rider Greg Blasi.
At one point, video taken from the perspective of a spectator up in the stands appeared to show Blasi punching Rich Strike, while another image taken by photographer Heather C. Jackson showed the Derby winner tearing into Blasi’s right leg with his teeth.
Observers on social media were quick to defend and criticize Blasi, including animal welfare group PETA, which issued a statement condemning the Churchill Downs outrider.
Eric Reed, Rich Strike’s trainer, defended Blasi in a Today Show appearance Monday, stating “that man saved my horse from injury.”
But just what is the job of an outrider at the typical horse track, and what prompted the horse’s outburst in the first place?
What is an outrider in horse racing?
According to the American Quarter Horse Association, outriders are present at every horse racing track you visit, though usually they escape the notice of most spectators.
These expert equestrians work like ushers at an event. Their job is to guide and coordinate, to make sure things run smoothly and at the appropriate time.
The AQHA explains the job of the outrider thusly: “Outriders assist with the post parade, are stationed and at the ready during the race and help bring the winner’s back after a race. One of their most visible duties involves helping to capture a racehorse if it gets loose, which is an incredibly demanding and precise job. The outrider’s horse must assist getting in position, and sprint quickly up to speed to catch the loose racehorse, then slow down again with the captured racehorse in hand.”
Why did Rich Strike bite the lead pony and outrider?
We asked Caton Bredar — an award-winning journalist with 25 years of experience covering horse racing — for her perspective on what went down on the track Saturday.
Bredar, currently an on-air host with horse racing television network TVG, was herself a pony rider for 15 years, tasked with escorting horses to their gate position ahead of races. Her professional background is in broadcasting, particularly as a horseback reporter who has covered key events, including the Breeders’ Cup, Belmont Stakes and Dubai World Cup. That job involves coordinating with the outrider to line up after-race interviews with the winning jockey.
Though she watched the incident unfold on live TV, and therefore “didn’t see the entire sequence of events,” Bredar speculates Rich Strike was likely the aggressor in this situation and not the outrider.
Bredar largely attributed Rich Strike’s behavior to the fact that he is a stallion of a particularly tough pedigree.
She characterized the outburst she saw from Rich Strike as typically “studdish,” a bit of horse talk for aggressive male horse behavior, including nipping and herding mares, female horses. Likewise, a mare is acting “mareish” if she gets nervous, spooked and hard to handle.
Though she made a point of saying she did not want to blame the jockey in this case, Bredar said the situation may have been mitigated by a more experienced rider. Long shot Rich Strike was only added to the field Friday when Ethereal Road scratched.
Bredar doesn’t buy claims NBC rushed the outrider in this case to get the post-race interview. (She noted she has not worked for NBC.)
“It’s not as rushed as you think,” she said, adding that post-race interviews have been conducted at the Derby for the last 20 to 25 years and nothing like this has ever occurred to her knowledge.
Asked if she believes Blasi handled the situation correctly, Bredar avoided making a definitive judgment, but said her “instinct” was to side with the outriders at Churchill Downs, describing them as the best in the business.
Ultimately, the job of an outrider is to keep everyone safe, human and horse, she said. She pushed back on criticism from some that Rich Strike should have been allowed to run free.
“Truthfully, the situation can become much worse,” she said.
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