SPORTS & MORE: RAISE YOUR HAND IF YOU PICKED RICH STRIKE TO WIN THE DERBY

Churchill Downs horse-racing complex opened in 1875 in Louisville, Kentucky and has hosted the Kentucky Derby every May since then. CONTRIBUTED

No, I didn’t pick the winner of last Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. While I have chosen some previous winners, there wasn’t a chance I could have picked Rich Strike, and I’ll tell you why.

As of Friday morning, the 20-horse field included Ethereal Road in the 20th post position. Then, 30 seconds before the deadline, Ethereal Road’s trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, pulled him from the race. The next eligible 3-year-old (based on earnings) was Rich Strike. His owner, Rich Dawson, said let’s go for it. He also said, several times late Saturday, that he wouldn’t enter a horse in any race, even the Derby, unless he thought he had a winner. This is the same owner who lost 23 of 36 horses in a barn fire six years ago, which gave Dawson pause about continuing that line of work. He obviously continued, though.

And now, Dawson has a winner all right. The son of Keen Ice, Rich Strike had one victory and three thirds in seven career starts. His jockey, Sonny Leon, had not previously ridden in the Derby. Leon, the leading Venezualan rider in this country (by number of races won) before Saturday, did most of his riding at Mahoning Valley Race Course, near Youngstown, Ohio. He’s the leading jockey there.

Now, I’ve been to several tracks in Ohio. Mainly River Downs near Cincinnati, Beulah Park near Columbus and Thistledown near Cleveland. Not for several years, though. I’d never heard of Mahoning Valley. 

The sheet showing the Derby field from which I was working still had Ethereal Road listed. But there was no way I would have picked that colt – or Rich Strike, had he been listed. As I read up on the race pre-Derby, I was looking for good horses who could come steaming out of the gate and be close to the early lead. That was not an 80-1 choice, starting from the now 21st position. The 20th post was gone with Ethereal Road.

No. My choices were Epicenter (the betting favorite), Taiba (ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith) and Simplification. Later, I added a fourth horse, Florida Derby winner White Abarrio.

When I pick my Derby horses from afar, that’s the usual way I do it. Pick three or so and send my money with a friend who is headed for Louisville and Churchill Downs to place my bets. There was a time when I had the winner on my Derby list a dozen or so times in a row. Remarkable? Yes, but two things: I didn’t always bet and I didn’t bet much. And I didn’t bet this time.

Saturday’s race was exciting in my book. With a quarter-mile to go, I was rooting for Epicenter, who was among the leaders. Soon, it was Epicenter and Zandon, pounding toward the finish. And then, from way back, in 17th place, came a third colt. It was none other than Rich Strike, the nobody. At 80-1, it would be the longest winning odds since 1913 when Donerail won at 91-1.

As Rich Strike made his way to the front from just inside the rail, it was almost as if the rest of the field moved away from the post to give Rich Strike room. He won by three-quarters of a length in 2:02.61. He paid his betting followers $163.60 for $2. He earned his owners $1.86 million. Dawson bought him last fall when Calumet Farms offered him for $30,000 in a claiming Race. Happy? Of course. I’m always happy to see a good story. And Rich Strike is certainly that.

TWO OTHER WEEKEND STORIES got me very excited: The District 4A championships won by the Key West baseball and softball teams, both against St. Brendan.

Both began state championship play earlier this week at Rex Weech and the Key West Backyard, respectively.

After opening District play with a 17-0 victory in four innings over Sunset, the Conchs’ baseball team had to rally in an extra inning to beat the Sabres, 7-6, after falling behind 5-0 following St. Brendan’s four runs in the first and a single run in the top of third. Key West got its first run in the bottom of the third on a walk to Anthony Lariz, a balk, a sacrifice bunt and a single by Trevor Zuelch.

After the Sabres got one run back, in the fifth, Key West scored three in the bottom of that inning on walks and hits by Joel Perdigon and Jack Haggard and two the following inning on walks and two hits by Zuelch and Haggard. In the eighth, the Conchs scored the winning run when Preston Herce scored on a bases-loaded wild pitch. With sophomore standout pitcher Chloe Gilday allowing but two hits, the Lady Conchs defeated St. Brendan, 2-0, to take care of the girls’ 16-4A title. Key West improved its overall record to 17 wins, 3 losses and 1 tie. The Lady Conchs were ranked fourth in 4A as they headed to Regional play.

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Veteran sports columnist Ralph Morrow says the only sport he doesn’t follow is cricket. That leaves plenty of others to fill his time.