Friday morning, Rich Strike wasn’t entered in the Kentucky Derby. Saturday evening, the 80-1 long shot was a Derby champion.
The 148th Kentucky Derby went off under gray skies on a track that wasn’t nearly as soaked as conditions had forecast, and for almost all of the race the favorites ran as predicted. But in the final few paces, jockey Sonny Leon cut Rich Strike to the inside to beat two favorites, Zandon and Epicenter, to win the race. Rich Strike, entered only when Ethereal Road scratched out Friday morning, is one of the longest-odds horses ever to win the race. Epicenter placed second, and Zandon finished third.
Rich Strike was in 17th position into the final turn, and began accelerating through the pack, moving to the inside as the race entered the front stretch. As Zandon and Epicenter battled for the lead, Rich Strike streaked along the rail to claim victory. The horses raced out to the fastest quarter mile in the race’s 148-year history, and that quick start may have contributed to the last-second fade of the leaders.
Rick Dawson, owner of Rich Strike, found out his horse would be running in the Derby about 30 seconds before the Friday morning entry deadline. Ethereal Road’s scratch opened the door for Rich Strike, whose owner and trainer had already made plans to begin training this weekend in New York for the Belmont Stakes. It’s safe to say those plans have changed.
"We always felt if we could just get in, we’d have a shot," Dawson said. "We proved it today." Rich Strike collected a purse payout of $1.86 million for the victory.
Rich Strike’s victory was the greatest odds upset since 1913, when 91-1 long shot Donerail claimed victory. Whether unaccustomed to victory or charged up from the atmosphere, Rich Strike began nipping at the escort pony after the race, adding even more chaos to a scene already rampant with madness.
One of the most notable storylines coming into the weekend was who wasn’t at the race: Bob Baffert, the six-time Derby-winning trainer who is currently serving a two-year suspension from Churchill Downs. The Baffert-trained Medina Spirit won last year’s Derby, then tested positive for a banned substance. Medina Spirit was stripped of the victory, and the white-haired Baffert was banned from the property.
But Baffert’s influence still loomed over the race. Taiba and Messier, horses both trained by Baffert, were among the favorites just prior to post time.
When the post positions were announced on Monday, Zandon was the morning line leader at 3-1, with Epicenter right behind at 9-2. But by the time the race began. Zandon’s odds had risen as high as 8-1 before finishing at 6-1, while Epicenter settled at 4-1. That was enough to make Epicenter the favorite, even coming out of the third post, close to the rail.
Taiba saw odds jump from 12-1 to 5-1 by the start of the race. Prior to the Derby, Taiba had started just two races, but had won both of them. That, combined with the Baffert lineage, helped improve Taiba’s perception as the week wore on. Messier’s odds settled at 6-1 after starting at 8-1. Mo Donegal, which drew the generally unlucky first post against the rail, went off at 8-1. Rich Strike, which had perfunctory odds of 99-1 before ending at 80-1, wasn’t even on any radars.
Saturday marked the first time since 2019 that the Kentucky Derby went off with a full house in attendance. The 2020 race was delayed to September, and the 2021 edition had a sharply limited audience. The energy across Churchill Downs was palpable as the race began, and reached a crescendo unheard in three years as the horses came down the race’s front stretch. They saw a race unlike any other in more than a century.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.