Why Rich Strike's Kentucky win is among the greatest sporting underdog victories

Where does Rich Strike's Kentucky Derby shocker rank alongside the biggest upsets in history? Right there at the top, writes Leslie Wilson Jr

Jockey Sonny Leon celebrates in the winner's circle after Rich Strike's stunning victory in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday. (AP)
Jockey Sonny Leon celebrates in the winner's circle after Rich Strike's stunning victory in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday. (AP)

By Leslie Wilson Jr

Published: Mon 9 May 2022, 12:21 AM

It’s those extra special moments that we have been privileged to experience in our lifetime that compel us to embrace the sports that we love even more profoundly.

On what other stage will you see a substitute player come off the bench and score a golden goal, a replacement fighter knock out the champion or a last-minute entry go on to win the greatest horse race in the world?

One of these scenarios was played out in all its glory at the historic Churchill Downs racecourse on Saturday when Rich Strike, the least fancied of the 20 elite runners in the race, delivered the performance of a lifetime for his unsung rider, Sonny Leon, to win the Kentucky Derby.

It was one of those iconic victories that the sport of kings is reputed for and perhaps it won’t be the last.

Rich Strike only got into the Derby after one of the 20 runners was scratched but what transpired once the famous starting gates flew open stunned the world.

Breaking from the widest gate of all, 21, the unsung colt was given a tenacious but tactical ride on the inside to upstage crowd favorites Epicentre and Zandon and win by three-quarters of a length.

Over the years has there have been some milestone moments like when Lammtarra achieved the almost unheard of feats by recovering from illness to win the coveted Epsom Derby on his seasonal debut or Leicester’s Premier League title victory at odds of 5000-1 in 2016, which is arguably one of the greatest sporting shocks ever.

Where does Rich Strike’s Kentucky Derby shocker rank alongside the biggest upsets in horse racing history?

Right there at the top.

Consider this. He had only won one race in his career and was representing a jockey and trainer who were barely in the Kentucky Derby equation in the run-up to the race.

But for trainer Eric Reed, adversity is something that he has come to live with having survived an unprecedented tragedy where a massive fire claimed the lives of 24 horses in his care.

Reed needed to start from scratch but he displayed a resilience that would one day lead to him capturing horse racing’s most prestigious title.

It is hard to fathom how anyone could bounce back from such a horrific incident to becoming the proud owner of the world’s most famous rose garland – a magnificent work of grand floristry that comprises 465 Rainforest Alliance Certified “Freedom Roses”.

In the 148 runnings of the Kentucky Derby perhaps Reed’s success is the most remarkable story of an incredible twist of fate following the heartache of a blaze in his stable.

In sport, like in life, what you see is what you get in sport. But ever so often that there is a message of life at the end.

It was once said that life never pleases us by giving us what we want but it always surprises us with things that we deserve.

Nobody could deny that Reed, Sonny Leon, or Rich Strike, a horse that cost just $30,000 as a yearling, deserved the success that they achieved on one of horse racing’s biggest stages.

They say, always smile at life and it will smile back at you. In Reed’s case the challenges that he has surmounted through positivity remind us that while nothing comes easy in life, it doesn’t stop you from never wanting to give up.

Team Rich Strike taught us this on Saturday.

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