By Bill Finley
It was an improbable outcome. No, make that an impossible outcome. But it happened. An 80-1 shot named Rich Strike (Keen Ice), who probably should have been 800-1, won the GI Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs.
But how? He benefitted from a pace meltdown, ran the race of his life and, most importantly, got one of the best rides in Derby history from a guy you probably never heard of. His name is Sonny Leon and he outrode Joel Rosario, Flavien Prat and a bunch of other guys who are in the Hall of Fame or will be some day. As they say, go figure.
“[Leon] gave him the greatest ride I have ever seen,” winning trainer Eric Reed said.
Here's what he did: Breaking from the 20 post, Leon made a beeline for the rail right out of the break. Horses from the 20 post are supposed to go five, six wide in the first turn. Leon, 32, had him in the two path. He was 17th down the backstretch and the jockey was patient, obviously realizing that a premature move would do him in. Rich Strike was motoring at the three-eighths pole and Leon had a decision to make. He could try to go around horses, which would have guaranteed a clear run to the wire, or he could take his chances and hope a hole would open up on the rail where he could save ground. He went inside, but Messier (Empire Maker) was in his way. Leon stayed calm and steered his mount around a tiring Messier. From there, with a clear path to the wire, Rich Strike ran like a wild horse. He won by 3/4 of a length over Epicenter (Not This Time) and 2021 Eclipse Award winning jockey Joel Rosario. On Zandon (Upstart), Flavien Prat was third.
After it was over, Jerry Bailey, arguably the best rider of his generation, was absolutely gushing about Leon.
“He did a fantastic job,” Bailey said on the NBC broadcast. “From the 20 post, he got to the inside on the first turn…It was a brilliant ride by Sonny Leon. You have to tip your hat to him.”
So, just who is Sonny Leon?
After trainer Eric Reed claimed Rich Strike from trainer Joe Sharp and breeder Calumet Farm out of a $30,000 maiden claimer back on Sept. 17 at Churchill, he rode Julien Leparoux in his next start. The result was a third-place finish. Then he went to Leon. With his new rider, Rich Strike was fifth in the Gun Runner S., third in the Leonatus S., fourth in the Battaglia Memorial S. and third in the GIII Jeff Ruby Steaks.
It might have been time to try someone else. Though he never could have gotten the likes of an Irad Ortiz Jr., a Luis Saez or a Prat to ride the horse, surely, he could have gotten someone else, someone who had a proven record in races like the Kentucky Derby. Nope. He went with Sonny Leon.
“Eric sold me on Sonny,” winning owner Richard Dawson said. “A month or so back we had a conversation, like most people. You're looking at options. And it was if you get in the Derby, are we going to stick with Sonny? He said, 'I want to stick with Sonny.' I I would never, ever change at that point. I said I may not change my socks, let alone my jock. I've watched Sonny ride a bunch. And his courage, his smartness on the track…I mean, he's athletic. Don't ever wrestle this guy because it's not going to be fun. He's our kind of guy.”
Or, maybe, Reed didn't bother to make a switch because Rich Strike was on the also-eligible list and didn't figure to draw in. We will never know.
“I knew this horse could do it if he found his way through the traffic,” Reed said. “That's why I had Sonny on him. He got us here.”
According to Equibase, Leon a native of Venezuela, has had 5,175 mounts in the U.S. with 769 winners. He made his riding debut in North America in 2015, when he won all of nine races. Prior to the Derby, he had never won a graded stakes race. His biggest wins had been in a trio of $100,000 races, the 2021 and 2020 runnings of the Best of Ohio Endurance S. and the 2021 Best of Ohio Cleveland Kindergarten S.
After coming over from his native country, Leon found his niche. He became a big deal on the Ohio racing circuit. He's won the last four riding titles at Mahoning Valley and was second in the standings at the 2021 meet at Belterra Park and third at the 2020 meet there. He warmed up for the Derby by riding five horses Friday at Belterra. In his last mount before the Derby, he finished second on the 7-10 favorite Elliot the Dragon (Kantharos) in a $26,400 Ohio-bred allowance. His last win before the Derby came in a $5,000 claimer.
That was on Tuesday at Belterra, another slow day at a slow racetrack with cheap horses. On Saturday, Sonny Leon was the king of the world–the most unlikely king of the world horse racing has ever seen. How can you explain such a thing?
“It's a horse race, and anybody can win,” Reed said.
Will this win, this sensational ride, be a launching pad to stardom for the Venezuelan?
“I want to enjoy this moment, and we'll see what happens tomorrow,” Leon said.
Leon said he's going to spend the next few days vacationing with his family in Tampa. Then it will be back to work, at Belterra, with the $5,000 claimers and the Ohio breds. Then there will be the GI Preakness S., where the pundits probably won't give this horse much of a chance. Won't be another pace meltdown like there was in the Derby, they will say. They'll probably be right. Leon's next winner will no doubt be back at Belterra in a race that doesn't matter all that much.
But he will always have the 2022 Kentucky Derby. It was his moment, his two minutes–2:02.61 to be exact–of fame. The horse did his part, but he never would have won if not for a perfect ride from his jockey. Good on you, Sonny Leon.