Secretariat

Rich Strike Hits the Mother Lode with Improbable Derby Victory

Well, the 2022 Kentucky Derby wasn’t what we expected. Most people had no clue who Rich Strike was before the race, but they sure know who he is now and the remarkable story of how this $30,000 claim found his way into the race at the 11th hour. ~ Steve Haskin

Rich Strike Hits the Mother Lode with Improbable Derby Victory

By Steve Haskin

Photo courtesy of Michael Clevenger and Christopher Granger/Courier Journal

Gabriel Lagunes’ alarm clock went off at 4 a.m. By 4:30 he was out of his house in Florence, Kentucky and on the road for the two-hour drive to Churchill Downs. For two weeks the Mexican-born jockey was a on a special assignment. Trainer Eric Reed, for whom Lagunes began riding at Mountaineer Park two years ago and exercised horses for him at Turfway Park, had asked his rider to drive to Churchill Downs every morning to get on Rich Strike, a son of Keen Ice who had run three times over Turfway’s synthetic surface, finishing third in the Leonatus Stakes and Jeff Ruby Steaks and fourth in the John Battaglia Memorial. He hardly seemed like Kentucky Derby material, but he had enough points to at least have him placed at number 24 on the earnings list. And it was obvious the colt, who came from far back in his races, was getting good at the right time, so why not train him at Churchill and see what happens, even though getting him in the race seemed like a longshot.

There was no one Reed wanted on the colt’s back other than Lagunes. Last November at Turfway Park Reed told Lagunes “I need you to work with this horse and take care of him,” so he started exercising the colt and working with him. And boy was he a handful.

“He was kind of goofy, he had his problems and needed a lot of work,” said Lagunes, who was a top jockey in Mexico and once finished second in the rich Clasico del Caribe in Puerto Rico. “He was sore in his back and ankles, he was very green and was mean in the mornings, he was scared of other horses behind him and in front of him, and he didn’t like ponies. He just didn’t want horses close to him. Every morning we would ice him and I would walk him and talk to him and jog him to try to get him to relax. I would gallop him way out in the middle of the track because he was so strong and if I got him close to the rail he would know he was working and would be hard to hold.

“We raced him in blinkers, but he seemed nervous in them so I suggested to Eric that he open up the blinkers and use cheaters because he needed to see everything and that would relax him more.”

Rich Strike had changed quite a bit since he was broken by April Mayberry in Ocala. “He was just one of the boys back then,” she said. “He was young like a teenager and his mind was never really in it. He was always messing around and playing. But he learned and became a very game and confident colt. I’m surprised to hear they had problems with him, but when I had him he was still a baby.”

Reed had claimed Rich Strike from Calumet Farm and trainer Joe Sharp for $30,000 in a race he wound up winning by 17 ¼ lengths. The colt continued to improve and would rally from far back to pick up a piece of the purse in stakes races at Turfway, but after seven races he still had only that one victory.

Reed put Venezuelan-born jockey Sonny Leon on him last December and he taught the colt how to run through horses. After he closed from 11th to finish fourth, beaten three lengths, in the Battaglia, Leon dismounted and told Reed, “We’re there. This is a Derby horse.” He then picked up valuable points finishing third in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, again rallying from 11th at odds of 26-1.

The Kentucky Derby was still in the back of their minds because of his running style, his late closing punch, and how quickly he was improving. When Reed told his daughter Lindsy about their plans to try to get in the Derby she was “amazed and excited,” mostly for her father and mother to have this opportunity. She never thought he would win, but it was exciting just to be able to get there.

Lindsy, who is a top hunter jumper, had taken care of Rich Strike, grooming him, bandaging him, and giving him his medicines, until he left for Churchill Downs. “He was quite full of himself and could be a handful,” she said. “He wasn’t mean, just playful and kind of goofy like a young prankster growing up. He loved to play with his grooms.”

On April 27, Lagunes worked him five furlongs at Churchill Downs and he went in a sharp :59 3/5.

“I could feel he was getting better and better the last few weeks and he was so strong in his work and really happy,” Lagunes said.

But as the Derby got closer the chances of Rich Strike getting in grew slimmer. Reed had someone giving him information every day about the status of the field and he would text him whenever a horse withdrew. There was some hope when he jumped from 24th on the list to 22nd, but after the Lexington Stakes they were back to 24. All they could do now was enter the horse and put him on the also-eligible list, hoping somehow four horses would drop out.

We came here on a prayer,” Reed said. “I told my dad and I told Rick (owner Richard Lawson), the worst thing that could happen to us is to have a call a day or two before the Derby and say you’re going to get in and not be prepared. So we came up to Churchill and we trained against all odds. Nobody thought we could get in. We got a defection, and then we got another one.”

At 8:45 the morning before the Derby Reed was notified that there were no scratches and that they were not going to get in. The security guard was told to leave the barn and Reed texted his dad and simply said, “Didn’t happen.” He texted some of his friends and said, “We didn’t get in. Sorry guys.” He then went in to his crew to tell them in person because he knew they were going to be really let down. “I told them, ‘Guys, look, we didn’t make it, but we were Number 21.’” They were one spot away from experiencing the moment of their lives, but time was desperately running out and it seemed hopeless.

Reed told his crew, “We got to get ready for the Peter Pan next week. And if we run well, we’ll go to the Belmont and show them that we belong.”

“I was trying to keep their spirits up, Reed said. “It didn’t matter how I felt because I have to keep my crew going. And they were really sad.”

Then just before 9 o’clock, Reed’s pony girl Fifi called him and said “Don’t do anything with your horse. Don’t move him.”

Reed had no idea what she was talking about and said, “What do you mean? Calm down.” But she was still excited. “No, you’re getting in,” she said. But Reed still didn’t believe her. “No I’m not. I’ve already been told I’m not. Somebody gave you bad information,” he said.

But Fifi insisted. “I’m telling you I just got notification that Wayne (Lukas) is scratching (Ethereal Road) and you’re going to get in.”

Shortly after, Reed received a call from steward Barbara Borden who said, “This is the steward. Tomorrow in the 12th race, the Kentucky Derby, do you want to draw in off the also eligible?”

“I couldn’t even breathe to answer and say ‘yes,’ Reed said. “I was like, what just happened? I was told no I’m not in, I lost my security guard, and now we’re in.”

Were the Derby gods at work conjuring up this unlikely scenario? Reed had gone through some tough times and nearly left the business. Several years ago he lost 23 horses in a fire at his farm. He told his wife, “We’ve probably lost everything.” But as he said, by the grace of God the wind was blowing in the direction where it prevented the fire from spreading to his other two barns. Then a year ago two of his assistants died of cancer within three months of each other.

Now, just like that, here he was in the Kentucky Derby. Reed never thought he would win, but he knew if he did get in “they’d know who he was when the race was over.”

Going to the paddock Reed was happy to see the colt calm and handling everything like a pro, just as he done all week schooling. When he got to the paddock he was composed and nothing seemed to bother him. But once he got on the track he perked up, yet was still well behaved.

On the tote board he was 80-1, and most everyone had no clue who this horse was, especially getting into the race the day before. Although he had to break from post 20, Leon was able to work out a trip and get him to the rail, where he has always loved to be. On the far turn Reed lost him for a second, then saw him cut to the inside. “That’s when I almost passed out,” he said. “I didn’t remember what happened after that.”

Down the stretch following a blazing fast pace of :21 3/5 and :45 1/5, the favored Epicenter took over the lead as the pacesetters wilted badly from the fast early fractions. Then Zandon came charging at him and it looked like a two-horse battle to the wire. Epicenter dug in and refused to let Zandon get by him and appeared to have the race won. Just then another horse came flying up the rail, eased outside of a tiring Messier, and stormed up alongside the two leaders. Most people had no idea who it was. Even track announcer Travis Stone and NBC racecaller Larry Collmus missed him, not mentioning his name until he came charging by Epicenter and Zandon. He already had his head in front when Collmus shouted “Oh my goodness!”

Even April Mayberry, watching in her living room with her mother, her assistant trainer and several friends, didn’t recognize him. “I saw it was a chestnut and thought it was Taiba” she said. “But then I saw the blinkers and thought ‘You got to be kidding, it’s Rich Strike.’ When he crossed the finish line everyone went so crazy my poor dogs ran out of the house. I thought the neighbors were going to call the police.”

In the paddock, Gabriel Lagunes and his partner Lindsey Matthews watched along with the Reeds. “We were completely shocked,” Lindsey said. “This was not what we were expecting. We were all jumping up and down and there was lots of crying and hugging. It looked like Eric was having a heart attack.”

Lindsy Reed said hugging her father and grandfather was “the greatest moment I will ever remember. We wrapped our arms around each other in total astonishment. I wanted this so much for my dad and mom. It’s been a hard road and they really deserve this. I just wanted him to get in the race for them. I never thought he had a chance to win, but he proved me wrong in the biggest way possible. I was so happy he at least got to run, but he blew us out of the ballpark.”

Owner Richard Dawson said after the race, “What planet is this? I feel like I’ve been propelled somewhere.” He asked Reed, “Are you sure this isn’t a dream?”

All the work and all the anxiety of trying to get in the Derby had paid off in shocking fashion. Rich Strike no longer was that baby whose mind was more interested in “messing around and playing.” He no longer was that “goofy” colt with all the hang-ups who was afraid of other horses.

But it was obvious he still was that the same colt who disliked ponies, as witnessed by his constant attempts to savage the lead pony escorting him to the winner’s circle. Meanwhile, in the grandstand and infield most everyone was savaging their mutual tickets wondering what had just happened.

So we come to the end of another Kentucky Derby journey and a fascinating Derby trail. Somehow the Derby gods worked their miracle, as they have done a number of times in the past. The unlikeliest of heroes, Rich Strike, struck it rich and added a wild new chapter into the annals of the Kentucky Derby. It sure didn’t end like we expected, but that is what the Derby trail and the Derby itself is all about. Always expect the unexpected, because you never know whose dreams are destined to come true. In this case even the dreamers couldn’t imagine they would come true. But in the end, the Derby gods spoke and when they speak the whole world listens.

********

Sixty miles away from Churchill Downs at Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement facility, there is a black marble headstone that stands as a reminder of how a horse, a life, a dream, and a feel-good moment can end so abruptly and alter the course of history. It also serves as a stark reminder of how quickly Thoroughbred racing can turn a bright ray of sunshine into a dark ominous cloud.

That headstone, on which is inscribed the name of Medina Spirit with the words “Noble and Cherished Champion,” is all that is left of the legacy of this courageous colt, along with the memory of his gallant victory in last year’s Kentucky Derby.

The powers that be at Churchill Downs can remove his name from their record books and can tear down his sign in the paddock as winner of the 2021 Derby, but they can never remove the image of him turning back challenge after challenge down the stretch, and they can never tear down his reputation or convince anyone that a topical skin ointment helped him in any way win the Derby.

This is not about his positive drug test for a non-performance enhancing medication or how and why it was administered. I understand that rules are rules, but those rules and the colt’s disqualification will never alter my belief that Medina Spirit’s victory was a deserving one, and in my mind he will always be the winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, with all due respect to Mandaloun, who also ran a courageous race.

Was Medina Spirit betrayed by human frailty? That is up to each person to decide. What is important one year later is what is in each person’s heart and whether they will remember the name of Medina Spirit based on what transpired in a laboratory or what they witnessed on the racetrack, not only in the Kentucky Derby, but race after race. No one can deny that he gave every ounce of his heart each time he stepped into the starting gate. That is all I will remember of Medina Spirit, whose life and career ended way too soon.

As for Gail Rice and Christy Whitman, the two small-time horsewomen who orchestrated this feel-good, rags-to-riches story and lived out the dream of every horse lover, I only hope that dream and the exultation they experienced haven’t diminished even in the slightest. Their story and the story of Medina Spirit will endure as long as the Derby roses bloom and the Twin Spires pierce the skies above Churchill Downs.

So as we salute Rich Strike as the winner of the 2022 Kentucky Derby we also must remember that black marble headstone 60 miles away and the name of Medina Spirit for what he represents and how he will always be part of Derby lore, not for his disqualification, but for the indomitable spirit that has defined the Thoroughbred for centuries and, despite the ignorance of some, will continue to do so for centuries to come.


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Leave a Reply to Since Lil E. Tee

278 Responses to “Rich Strike Hits the Mother Lode with Improbable Derby Victory”

  1. Larry Loonin says:

    There are few authors writing in any genre that write as feelingly as you do. You identify with all you come in contact with and provide a window into what they might have been thinking at the moment. Sometimes you tell us what they said, but always you convey what they were feeling.

  2. Fernando Ramos says:

    Steve,
    You are the “greatest”! I loved your story on Rich Strike, but even more so, your tribute to Medina Spirit. I totally agree with all that you wrote about Medina. He was one my favorite thoroughbreds – you always knew he was going to lay it on the line every time he stepped on the track for a race. What a race horse – the “true” 2021 Kentucky Derby winner!

  3. Chuck Berger says:

    Steve, am not computer savvy. Just came upon your Facebook page. No one, and I mean no one can write like you about horseracing. I have missed your regular gigs from years past. Glad I found you on Facebook. You keep me feeling young (84 years old next month).
    Thanks, and be well……………………………………………………………Chuck

  4. God Bless the horses and all of us who love them!

  5. Mary Jean Blanchard says:

    Rich Strike is an amazing story about an amazing horse!

  6. Lynda King says:

    Just some “Preakness” history to chew on:
    YEAR HORSE REASON RAN IN BELMONT
    1938 Lawrin Not eligible No
    1951 Count Turf Not eligible Yes
    1952 Hill Gail Injury No
    1954 Determine Rest No
    1955 Swaps Injury No
    1959 Tomy Lee Rest No
    1982 Gato Del Sol Rest Yes
    1985 Spend A Buck Rest No
    1996 Grindstone Injury No
    2019 Country House* Illness No
    2021 Mandaloun* Rest No

    How Derby winning longshots finished in the Preakness
    Donerail
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 1913
    Kentucky Derby odds: 91-1
    Preakness finish: Did not start

    Country House*
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 2019
    Kentucky Derby odds: 65-1
    Preakness finish: Did not start (as noted above, virus after Derby)

    Mine That Bird
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 2009
    Kentucky Derby odds: 50-1

    Giacomo
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 2005
    Kentucky Derby odds: 50-1
    Preakness finish: Third

    Gallahadion
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 1940
    Kentucky Derby odds: 35-1
    Preakness finish: Third

    Apollo
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 1882
    Kentucky Derby odds: 32-1
    Preakness finish: Did not start

    Charismatic
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 1999
    Kentucky Derby odds: 31-1
    Preakness finish: First (Charismatic then suffered a life threatening fracture in the Belmont)

    Proud Clarion
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 1967
    Kentucky Derby odds: 30-1
    Preakness finish: Third

    Exterminator
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 1918
    Kentucky Derby odds: 29-1
    Preakness finish: Did not start

    Thunder Gulch
    Year of Kentucky Derby win: 1995
    Kentucky Derby odds: 25-1
    Preakness finish: Third

    Kentucky Derby winners who lost the Preakness: 1931 Twenty Grand (2nd); 1939 Johnstown (5th); 1956 Needles (Needles was a dramatic late closer, who won the Kentucky Derby by moving up from 16th place (in a 17-horse field). However, the shorter Preakness Stakes at a mile and three-sixteenths didn’t give him quite enough room to catch Fabius, the Derby runner-up. Of note is that Fabius went on to run another race between the Preakness and the Belmont (the Jersey Stakes on May 26, which he won) but was conquered again by Needles in the third leg of the Triple Crown.); 1972 Riva Ridge (4th track was sloppy); 1974 Cannonade (3rd); 1975 Foolish Pleasure (2nd); 2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (2nd); 2007 Street Sense (2nd lost to Curlin); 2010 Super Saver (8th); 2011 Animal Kingdom (2nd); 2013 Orb (4th); 2016 Nyquist (3rd); 2017 Always Dreaming (8th); 2020 Authentic (2nd to Swiss Skydiver who had the second fastest time in the Preakness to the Derby. Baffert later said that perhaps that he did not have the screws as tight as he should have for the Preakness).

  7. diane kwolek says:

    Just want to thank you Steve for all your exhaustive research and hard work in order to bring the Derby Rankings to us week after week. Phenomenal job !!! I’m not much of a handicapper but I read, absorbed and looked forward to each installment. I learned a lot from the “master” and also from the contributors to this blog. I hope you’ll continue with this again next year and as always, thank you for writing.

  8. Steve Haskin says:

    NEW COLUMN IS NOW POSTED. NEXT COLUMN WILL BE A PREAKNESS ANALYSIS NEXT WEDNESDAY

  9. Since Lil E. Tee says:

    Can’t wait to bet Early Voting in the Preakness. Thinking he’ll be no less than 3-1, as Epicenter and Secret Oath should be the top two choices.