Rich Strike charged through the stretch, passing horses to his inside and outside, rallying as if steered by a gamer with the cheat codes, and upset the Kentucky Derby-G1 with one final surge past Epicenter. The winner was 81-1. The runner-up was favored at 4-1.
Good or bad for racing?
Can it be both?
I watched the first leg of the Triple Crown from a college apartment at the University of Maryland along with 20 or so students with no connection to racing. My youngest son Nolan turned 21 that day, and we celebrated with a rainy run – he went 21 miles, I did not – some world-class barbecue from 2Fifty Texas in Riverdale Park (shameless plug), some legal adult beverages and a Derby hat pool (pay $5, mostly via Venmo, and draw a name out of a hat). When Rich Strike (No. 21) crossed the wire first, the racing neophytes wondered why or how we did not place a bet.
“The 21 horse won on Nolan’s 21st birthday??? Of course he did!!! What’s wrong with us??? We should have bet that…We’d be rich…” One of them, Nolan’s buddy Nate who is at the Coast Guard Academy and will spend the summer on a ship, actually was rich or richer anyway as he collected $100 for coming to a party and pulling the correct name from a hat.
But the rest of the crew wanted to know how that happened. If they’re gamblers, their exposure leans more toward sports that don’t involve horses and 81-1 shots don’t win many NFL or NBA games.
I tried to explain. Longshots do win the Derby. Rarely. Sometimes. Well, every so often. Country House (via disqualification) won at 65-1 in 2019. Mine That Bird was 51-1 in 2009. Giacomo was 50-1 in 2005. It happens, but horse racing is not a lottery or a slot machine. It’s not random. The results are predictable, or somewhat predictable, or at least worth the effort of trying to do the predicting. The college kids kept pointing to the TV and I kept trying to say, “But . . . But . . .”
I’m not sure I made much progress or helped the situation. From a gambling perspective, when it came to the winner, racing made no sense on the first Saturday in May. And that’s not good for a game that is supposed to reward sound, informed opinions predicated on various points of data. On the flip side, the longshot payoff (officially $163.60 for a $2 win bet) and even higher numbers for the exacta ($4,101.20 for $2), trifecta ($14,870.70 for $1) and superfecta ($321,500.10 for $1) made the college students – and perhaps anyone else – feel that anything is possible when horses get in the starting gate. You could know nothing and get lucky, really lucky. Maybe they’ll go racing, or at least watch another Derby.
And from a completely different perspective – that of owners, trainers and breeders – the Derby result might make an even more positive impact. Lifelong horseman Eric Reed, based at his Mercury Equine Center in Lexington, won the country’s biggest Thoroughbred race on his first try, with a horse he and owner Richard Dawson’s Red-TR Racing claimed for $30,000. Reed had won one graded stakes, in 2009, before the Derby. Dawson hadn’t won 10 races as an owner. Rich Strike drew in off the also-eligible list. His sire Keen Ice stands for $7,500. More than half the second-crop sire’s progeny earnings now come from Rich Strike. Rich Strike’s dam Gold Strike raced solely in Canada and sold for $1,700 in 2019. Her dam Brassy Gold never ran. And Brassy Gold’s dam Panning for Gold was bred in Pennsylvania by the Lyman family of the still-active Maui Meadow Farm.
Connections like this have won the Derby, but it had been awhile.
California Chrome (though he was the favorite) in 2014 . . . Mine That Bird in 2009 . . . Smarty Jones in 2004 . . . Funny Cide in 2003 made cases for the underdogs with Derby wins. Their trainers Art Sherman, Chip Woolley, John Servis and Barclay Tagg weren’t necessarily household names, even in racing. Their owners weren’t from the hedge-fund world, didn’t spend millions at the yearling sales, weren’t vacationing in Tuscany. No royal families were involved.
But the horses won, proving that there are other ways to do things. Maybe racing’s current business model isn’t the only way. You can’t guarantee success by teaming up with 10 rich friends who could also own a horse to buy a more expensive horse. Maybe you don’t have to just send your horse to whatever super trainer is winning at 30 percent. Maybe that expensive sire isn’t the only way to move up your mare. Maybe that rapid 2-year-old breezing at the sale isn’t the only future star in the catalog.
Racing’s boiled-down success formula – which seems to go in all of those directions at once these days – could use a little work. Or could at least make room for new thinking.
The 2022 Kentucky Derby result just proved it.