On Saturday, May 7, more than 147,000 spectators gathered at Churchill Downs Racetrack, in Louisville, Kentucky to watch the 148th edition of the Run for the Roses. This year’s race did not disappoint, with Rich Strike, the 80-to-1 longshot, surging to the front of the pack in the last quarter-mile to upset favorites Zandon (4-to-1) and Epicenter (7-to-2), who placed second and third, respectively. The Champion’s 80-to-1 odds are the second longest odds ever for a Kentucky Derby Winner, trailing only 1913 winner Donerail, who won the race with 91-1 odds.
In fact, had you looked at this year’s post list only 36 hours earlier, the eventual derby winner did not even appear: Rich Strike started the day as the first alternate, and was entered into the race on Friday, only a day before race time, in the No. 20 post — wearing number 21 — after Ethereal Road was scratched. The horse and his team, consisting of trainer Eric Reed and jockey Sonny Leon, were only in Louisville in case of an emergency, and almost didn’t even travel at all. Luckily, they did, and got their chance of a lifetime on the first Saturday in May.
The three-year-old colt’s win seemed to come out of nowhere. He wasn’t bought, but claimed, for only $30,000, a rarity for an eventual derby-winner. He had raced only seven times before this year’s Derby. In the last five races he ran before the Derby, the 2022 Champ never led at any point of any of those races, finishing third three times, fourth once, and fifth once. He was beaten by an average of almost six lengths — an eternity in horse racing. In fact, the last time Rich Strike led in any race was more than 200 days ago.
So just how did the Little Horse That Could do it? As it turns out, it was a combination of a variety of unusual factors that lead to an equally unlikely ending. The first of those was the speed of the race. The splits for the 148th Kentucky Derby were the fastest ever recorded, with the early leader, Summer Is Tomorrow, running the first quarter mile in 21.78 seconds, the first half-mile in 45:36, and passing the three-quarter mile marker after only 1:10.34. For context, the splits for the 2021 Run for the Roses were 23:09, 46.70 and 1:11.21. The 2022 splits were fast enough to rank as the fastest first three-quarters since 2016 and the fastest opening quarter-mile ever.
The second improbability was that first-time Derby jockey Leon engineered an almost perfect run from his horse. He got a masterful ride out of Rich Strike: starting the race on the outside post, he efficiently slid his horse to the rail and settled in the middle of the pack for most of the lightning-fast race. After waiting for the leaders to tire, he slid Rich Strike in between a series of tired horses before zooming past the favorites in the final quarter mile. They didn’t have enough time to realize what hit them before Rich Strike was crossing the line in first place. Rich Strike won the race by three-quarters of a length, and in doing so, became only the second horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby from the No. 20 post since the modern starting gate was introduced in 1930.
Leon credited his horse, who never lost steam despite the pace, for giving him the ability to execute that series of masterful moves. In fact, he felt like the horse didn’t want to quit even after the finish line, and even seemed excited about his win. We all saw that energy in action in real time: Rich Strike spent the first two-or-so minutes after his Derby win trying to bite and pull on the reins of the walking pony that was assigned to get him and Leon to the Winner’s Circle in a moment that has gone viral since the race’s conclusion.
Rich Strike beat some real horses in Epicenter and Zandon, so why not the Preakness? Why not the Triple Crown? Only 13 horses have ever won the Triple Crown, meaning they won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes in the same calendar year. The most recent horses to do so were Justify, who did so in 2018, and American Pharoah, who won all three races in 2015. However, before American Pharoah, the last horse to achieve that feat was Affirmed, all the way back in 1978. It’s not a common occurrence by any means.
Winning both the Derby and the Preakness is only a little more doable — just 36 horses have done so, and excluding the 13 Triple Crown winners leaves 23 who have won only the first two of the three legs. Rich Strike has a chance to join this club on Saturday, May 21. But can lightning really strike twice? We’ll find out in just two short weeks. And after this weekend’s miracle, the world will surely be watching.