When Rich Strike crossed the finish line first in the 12th race that day, they became the owner, trainer, and jockey of a Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) winner of epic proportions. Their son of Keen Ice did not just win by three-quarters of a length over 19 of the best 3-year-olds in training. He won at mind-boggling 80-1 odds, leaving some folks deliriously happy and considerably richer while a much larger group scratched their head in disbelief. Yet in its purest essence, the win gave the nation the kind of endearing, rags-to-riches, underdog story that any sports fan with a pumping heart could embrace.
“Someone mentioned to me how Rich Strike is a modern day Seabiscuit,” said Reed, the trainer who pulled off the second-longest upset in the 148-year history of the Run of the Roses. “The world has seen some hard times in the last few years during the pandemic and people have been under a lot of stress. Now, like in the 1930s with Seabiscuit, here comes this little trainer with a little jockey and a horse no one knows anything about and they shock the world. He becomes a fan favorite and gives some people a lot of happiness after such horrible times. To me, that’s the best part of it.”
Dawson, the owner, Leon, the jockey who gave Rich Strike such a masterful ride in rallying from 18th, and Reed will forever have “Kentucky Derby-winning” attached to their names. It’s the tag they will proudly wear June 11 when Rich Strike runs in the final leg of the Triple Crown, the $1.5 million Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (G1), while making his first start since his improbable triumph in the series’ first jewel. For they were not just any trio of a victorious owner, trainer, and jockey. They were even longer shots to snatch Triple Crown glory than their horse’s 80-1 odds. They were not a billionaire owner who could buy the world’s best racing prospects, or a trainer with a massive stable of several hundred impeccably bred runners, or a jockey with a mantle full of Eclipse Awards.
Making their accomplishment even more incredible, they won America’s premier race with a horse they claimed, something no one had ever done in the nearly century-and-a-half-old classic.
For each of them, it was their first grade 1 win and prior to May 7, they combined for just one graded stakes win, which Reed accounted for back in 2009. Dawson, through his RED TR-Racing or his own name, owns just two horses in training and the other, Common Bond , is winless in six starts since Dawson acquired him and finished last in his most recent start. Reed and Leon are regulars on the Kentucky-Ohio circuit, but are more typically associated with claimers and allowance horses than graded stakes-caliber stock. Together with their Kentucky Derby winner, whom they claimed for just $30,000 from breeder/owner Calumet Farm last year after his only other win, they are the kind of blue-collar, working class heroes that the general public so lovingly embraces.
“Anytime the little guy or the underdog has his day in the winner’s circle it’s extra special,” Dawson said. “That’s how America feels, especially the part-time race fans who watch the Triple Crown or the Breeders’ Cup and are not the everyday race fans like I am. This win touched a lot of people. Had we been the favorite or 5-1 it would not have been such a tremendous feat. Now he’s become America’s horse. I think all of the stars were aligned for us.”
For Dawson, semi-retired from a business career in the gas and oil industry, it did not take long for him to realize how winning a Kentucky Derby has changed his life. Once news began to spread about Rich Strike’s victory, he soon heard from long-lost acquaintances and friends and relatives he didn’t even know he had.
“I had a few folks from grade school send me an email. Other people asked me if I’m the Rick Dawson they went to school with,” Dawson said. “It’s awakened a lot of people, which is cool because it has allowed me to reconnect with a lot of folks I haven’t talked with or seen in a long time.”
What hammered home Dawson’s new-found fame came about a week after Rich Strike’s stunning win, when the owner headed over to a favorite haunt near his Edmond, Okla., home, the Thunder-Roadhouse off-track betting facility for Remington Park. There he saw something that caused his jaw to drop.
“They had put up a 30-foot banner congratulating me for winning the Kentucky Derby. I couldn’t believe it,” Dawson said. “It had a picture of me holding the Kentucky Derby trophy and saluted me as a hometown Edmond resident who had just won this famous race.”
Once he entered the facility, Dawson was treated like a conquering hero by his friends there who cashed tickets on their buddy’s horse to the tune of $163.60 to win, or a $4,101.20 exacta or a $7,435.35 trifecta payoff for a 50-cent bet with the favorite and the third-choice completing the top three.
“I go there a lot,” Dawson said about Thunder-Roadhouse, “and a lot of the people there know me and bet on Rich Strike. The people there won so much money on the Derby that they had to start paying people off with checks rather than cash.”
“My older brother Butch is a Vietnam veteran on disability and he and his best friend Mike wanted me to bet for them,” he said. “They each won about $12,500 and they thought it was such a great thing. Paying them off and seeing the smiles on their faces when I handed them the money was among the best things about all this.”
“After the race with the interviews, and press conference and the party afterwards, I was just in shock,” he said. “It hadn’t sunk in so I was able to speak fairly coherently and draw on some comments and thoughts. I certainly didn’t have a speech prepared. It happened so fast and then people are dragging you to the winner’s circle and interviews. You don’t have time to think about what happened. I wasn’t going to try and thank everyone responsible for me being there because I would probably break down in tears or forget half the people I should thank. I did that on a private basis.”
In between the win and subsequent television appearances on “Morning Joe” and “Fox and Friends” and scores of interviews, Dawson finally found the time to gather his thoughts the day after the classic.
“The next morning I was alone having some coffee and it hit me. The tears started to flow,” he said. “My mother passed away in 2015 and my father passed in 2013. I thought about them and how it was Mother’s Day. It was quite a moment.”
Dawson and Reed created some outcry when they decided to skip the Preakness Stakes (G1) and give Rich Strike five weeks of rest for the Belmont, yet Dawson has no regrets about that move.
“I don’t hang out on the radio or social media much but what I heard from the industry was 100% supportive. I heard there were negative comments but I didn’t read them. There were a lot who commended us for sticking to our beliefs and doing what was right for the horse,” Dawson said. “For us it wasn’t the track or distance or who was running. We’re on a five-week cycle with him and it’s been working. He takes a nap every day at 10 a.m. like a big dog. Horses are creature of habits and if we change that routine and he runs a bad race in the Preakness, now what do we do? It just didn’t fit. We’re not trying to change history.”
As much as his life has changed, Dawson has no intentions of overhauling his stable, even after his $1,860,000 windfall from the victory. Aside from Rich Strike and Common Bond, he owns Babylon , a 4-year-old son of Medaglia d’Oro sidelined after surgery, a yearling Ohio-bred son of Keen Ice out of the Tale of the Cat mare Heather’s Dream that he bought for $8,000 at the Keeneland January Horses of All Ages Sale, and a mare, Stagecoach Mary, in foal to Keen Ice. In time, he might add a couple of 2-year-olds to see if lightning can strike twice, but that’s about it.
“I’m never going to own a lot of horses. That’s not what I want to do,” Dawson said. “I’m looking for a 2-year-old to work with and maybe get to the Derby again. Be it the Derby or the Kentucky Oaks (Longines, G1). This is way too much fun to not be a part of it again. This experience is something you want to repeat.”
As much as the visibility of winning the Kentucky Derby has generated some inquiries from prospective owners, Reed is content to remain in Kentucky working with modest stock at his Mercury Equine Center in Lexington. He tried racing on the big circuits before, sending strings to New York and California, but after he was diagnosed with blood clots in 2012, he returned to Kentucky and has no interest in leaving there.
“I’ve been at bigger tracks and raced at bigger circuits, but it’s not something I have to do because of the great purse structure they have in Kentucky. I don’t want to shake things up,” said Reed, who cares for about 115 horses. “We can win the Kentucky Derby with a horse out of Mercury, so why not stay there? I have a great staff at Mercury with my wife, Kay. They are the unsung heroes of all this. Nobody knows them because they are not here. I’d say if people have some nice horses they want to give us, fine. But packing up and going to New York or California is not what I want to do.”
Rich Strike’s win was such a shocking development that Reed collapsed and fell to the ground as it happened. Since then, after sharing a nationally televised emotional post-race interview on NBC with his father, he hasn’t been able to reflect on everything that transpired May 7.
“It hasn’t changed me too much. I’ve got a lot of horses in training and it’s been business as usual. I’ve really been so busy prepping Rich Strike for the Belmont and trying to take care of all the other horses while my wife and daughter are running the show in Kentucky that I haven’t had time to think about it,” he said. “I know what happened but it hasn’t hit me yet. I’m still on the inside looking out. I haven’t been able to step out and look in at what has actually transpired,” said Reed, who has 1,458 wins since 1985 with earnings of $24.5 million and sent out Rinterval to finish second to the then unbeaten Zenyatta in the 2010 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (G1). “I’ll get a YouTube video someone sends me and it will make me cry. But I haven’t had the time to enjoy everything and celebrate. I know when the Belmont Stakes is over and I have a little time to relax that it will hit me. But for now I’m so happy all of the people who work for me were able to be a part of this.”
Reed has appeared on the “Today Show” and been inundated with interview requests, which he was happy to grant after his previous experience in a media spotlight. That happened in 2016 when Reed endured the worst moment of his life: a fire that killed 23 Thoroughbreds inside one of the three barns at Mercury.
“Unfortunately I had all of that attention in 2016 with the barn fire. I was on all those shows and it was not a good story. It was better and more enjoyable this time. I enjoyed doing the shows and celebrating and giving credit to everyone. I appreciated it because the last time this happened I dreaded having to get up in front of the press and talk to them day after day about what happened. It was not pretty,” Reed said. “I’ve also had a lot of letters and poems sent to me. Rich Strike has a huge following and I was not ready for that. I tried to respond but now we have someone handling the thank yous and responses. It’s been so hard to keep up with everything but it’s also been an honor to do it.”
Fame also generated a pitfall for Reed as a check of a Twitter account linked to him in the days after the Kentucky Derby unearthed a nasty comment previously made about Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I didn’t pay attention to what they were saying about Twitter. I didn’t even remember what they were talking about,” Reed said. “I am so focused on the horse and getting him ready for the Belmont.”
Leon found himself embroiled in controversy minutes after the race when Rich Strike became rambunctious while heading to the winner’s circle, savaging his lead pony and biting the leg of outrider Greg Blasi while millions were watching on television. Leon was as dumbfounded by the incident as the bettors who could not believe an 80-1 shot had crossed the wire first.
“I’ve tried to explain it to people. He’s an animal. It’s a big race with a lot of people screaming and he got excited and bit the pony. It was the first time he did something like that and I don’t think he’ll do it again. He can be hyper sometimes but he’s never tried to bite someone,” said Leon, who has been aboard the Kentucky Derby winner in his last five starts. “After the race he was fresh and had so much energy. We could have gone around another time and they would not have beaten us.”
Leon found out how much his life changed a few hours after his Kentucky Derby win. On a normal Saturday, he would have waited a while for a table at the Jeff Ruby Steakhouse in Louisville. But after he became Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Sonny Leon, when he arrived at the restaurant he was quickly escorted to a table. En route, the packed crowd of diners stood and cheered, applauding him for his heroics in America’s most famous race.
For the past five weeks, Leon has continued to attract more attention than he has ever received since he began riding in 2015. Though he has ridden 789 winners with earnings of $15.4 million and been successful at tracks such as Turfway Park, Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course, and Belterra Park. On a typical winter Saturday, he would ride in the first four races at Mahoning Valley then drive four hours to Turfway for mounts in the final four there. Yet now, the man who was so obscure just two months ago now has one person after another reaching for a pen when they meet him.
“When you win the Kentucky Derby everything changes. All of a sudden you have a lot of fans. I’ve had a lot of people asking for autographs, and I’m signing photos, hats, programs. It’s been a great time for me. Before, nobody knew who Sonny Leon was. Now they do,” Leon said.
The impact a Kentucky Derby win will have on Leon’s career remains to be seen and will probably be shaped by his performances in the Belmont Stakes and other top-level events such as Runhappy Travers Stakes (G1) with Rich Strike. Yet the way he rode Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby, advancing from 18th and skillfully moving past horses as if he were a seasoned Hall of Famer, was a moment of pride for both him and his fellow riders at small tracks in the Midwest and across the country.
“All of the jockeys in Ohio felt like they won the Derby with me. They saw I won it and were happy that when I got the opportunity I showed the whole world what people like me and them can achieve,” Leon said. “There’s not much difference in talent among jockeys, yet it’s difficult for a jockey like me to get an opportunity to ride in a race like the Kentucky Derby. It was a one-in-a-million opportunity, but it came to me and I am so thankful. I’m very satisfied and proud to be one of the jockeys lucky enough to win the Kentucky Derby and I will always feel that way.”
While history will always list Rich Strike as the winner of the 148th Kentucky Derby, the Belmont figures to shape the legacy the colt will leave behind in a few years. To win a second classic would show how what happened on the first Saturday in May was not just a fluke and add to the appreciation for what some little guys accomplished in a sport dominated by the royalty of business and society.
“The day after the Belmont Stakes I’m going to the Yankees-Cubs baseball game at Yankee Stadium with my friend, Henry Shuck, and our wives,” Dawson said about an Edmond neighbor whose uncle was Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. “He asked if I had been invited to throw out the first pitch and I said no. But maybe they will ask me if we win the Belmont. We were part of such an inspirational win that touched so many and it would be incredible to experience something like that again.”