Sonny Leon Notches Shocking Victory at Kentucky Derby with 80-1 Rich Strike

It’s a debut to remember for Sonny Leon

The Venezuelan jockey made his first start in the Kentucky Derby a memorable one, guiding Rich Strike to an 80-1 upset win in the 2022 run for the roses.

Sonny Leon, Rich StrikeBefore long shot Rich Strike broke last from the gate in the 148th edition, Leon had such a light footprint in North American horse racing, he’d never won a graded stakes race.

In the 2:02.61 it took to finish the 2022 Run for the Roses, Leon turned in a ride — equal parts patient and fabulously bold — that no one present at Churchill Downs on an overcast Saturday will ever forget.

Taking advantage of a suicidal early pace, Leon booted the late-charging Rich Strike from 15th at the 1-mile pole to a stunning three-quarters-of-a-length victory over favored Epicenter.

Leon’s masterful ride helped Rich Strike become the second-longest shot ever to win a Kentucky Derby. Only 1913 Derby winner, Donerail, who went off at 91-1, has ever won the roses at a longer price than Rich Strike did.

“People kept asking me if I was nervous to ride in my first Kentucky Derby,” Leon said afterward in a joyous news conference. “I said, ‘No, I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.’ I was on an 80-1 shot and nobody knew my horse — but I did. I didn’t know if we could win, but I had a good feeling with him.”

Said Rich Strike trainer Eric Reed: “We passed ’em all. What a ride by Sonny.”

Starting from the outside post after making the race as an also-eligible, Rich Strike broke last in the field of 20. Leon quickly guided his mount toward the rail, saving ground. As Summer Is Tomorrow set suicidal early fractions of 21.78 seconds for the first quarter-mile and 45.36 seconds for the first half-mile, Leon and Rich Strike bided their time patiently near the rear of the Derby cavalry charge.

Rich Strike was 17th at the quarter pole, had fallen to 18th at the half-mile mark and was still ahead of only two horses three-quarters of a mile into the race. However, the withering fractions had set the race up for a closer — and when Leon asked Rich Strike to go, the horse exploded.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve got some horse,” Leon said after their come-from-behind win. “When I was in the last 70 yards, I said, ‘I think I got this race.”

“How much courage did our jockey have?” asked Rick Dawson, whose RED TR-Racing owns Rich Strike. “He had as much courage as our horse, and that was a lot.” Leon had ridden Rich Strike in the four races that immediately preceded the Derby. “He helped me train this horse,” said Reed, Rich Strike’s trainer. “This rider has ridden him all along. (Rich Strike) learned the process and (Leon) taught him how to ride through horses and pass horses.” That is why, both Reed and Dawson said, when they decided they had Kentucky Derby aspirations for Rich Strike, they decided they would stay with Leon instead of looking for a bigger name.

Before Saturday’s tour de force, Leon’s greatest achievement as a rider may have been his back-to-back wins in the Best of Ohio Endurance race on Forewarned.

Leon has been a regular rider far from horse racing’s brightest lights at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Youngstown, Ohio. He does win races, having won 226 in 2021 out of a whopping 1,125 starts.

He performed so well last year that he ended 2021 ranked 11th in the nation for total victories.

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