Vacation is nearly over; Rich Strike preps for Travers

Vacation is nearly over; Rich Strike preps for Travers
Photo: Ron Flatter

If there is one thing Eric Reed has learned while training Rich Strike, it is how to get the horse to focus on him.

“Watch this,” he told visitors this week at his Mercury Equine Center. “If I grab his tongue, I’ll get his attention.”

Sure enough, “Ritchie” dutifully poked his head out of his stall. He stuck his tongue not quite an inch out of his mouth and let Reed take a right-hand hold of it like they were playing a game of “got your nose.”

“He likes it,” Reed said.

Such has been the summer for the hero of the unlikeliest Kentucky Derby story in more than century. But things are getting busy again approaching this month’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga, where some of the horses who were vanquished that crazy day in May will get their chance for redemption.

Click here for Saratoga entries and results.

Rich Strike returned to Churchill Downs for a predawn workout Monday. The work tab showed him with a time of 1:01.0 for the five-furlong breeze on a main track made sloppy by overnight showers. Reed said he galloped out at 1:14 through six furlongs and pulled up after a mile at about 1:42.

Aug. 15, 2021ELPMaiden special weight10th1 mileTurf - firm
Sept. 17, 2021CDMaiden claiming1st1 mileDirt - fast
Oct. 9, 2021KEEAllowance opt. clmg.3rd1 mileDirt - fast
Dec. 26, 2021FGGun Runner5th1 1/16 mi.Dirt - fast
Jan. 22, 2022TPLeonatus3rd1 mileSyn. - fast
March 5, 2022TPJohn Battaglia Mem.4th1 1/16 mi.Syn. - fast
April 2, 2022TPJeff Ruby Steaks (G3)3rd1 1/8 mi.Syn. - fast
May 7, 2022CDKentucky Derby (G1)1st1 1/4 mi.Dirt - fast
June 11, 2022BELBelmont (G1)6th1 1/2 mi.Dirt - fast
Recent worksTrk.Dist. (type) Rk. TimeSurface
July 9, 2022MER4f (breezing)1/16   50.4Dirt - fast
Last TuesdayMER5f (breezing)1/131:03.0Dirt - fast
MondayCD5f (breezing)  3/61:01.0Dirt - sloppy
Horse Racing Nation     

“He likes the off tracks, so that didn’t bother us,” Reed said. “It was just mainly to see how much fitness he had lost, if any, and mentally if he was going to try to overdo it. He didn’t. It was probably the best work I’ve ever had him do. It was so easy, I was just tickled.”

That was not how Reed felt after Rich Strike finished sixth June 11 in the Belmont Stakes. Not blessed with the same bullet-fast, early pace ahead of him that he enjoyed in the Derby, the 3-year-old Keen Ice colt owned by Rick Dawson never had a chance to uncork his trademark closing speed. Jockey Sonny León could not make up the five lengths of ground he yielded early. Rich Strike ended up 13 1/4 lengths up the track from the winner Mo Donegal.

Reed blamed himself.

“In my heart I knew there was going to be a slow pace, and he was super sharp in his mind after the Derby,” Reed said. “I told Sonny, ‘The inside horse (We the People) is going to go. If (Rich Strike) acts like he wants to run, let him run on up in there, because it’s going to be a slow pace. I’d see you laying second or third just as easy as I could see you in the back of the field.’”

Having watched the race video countless times, Reed felt like the Belmont was lost on the first turn. That was where Creative Minister got in front of Rich Strike and León “had to steady just a hair.”

As Reed described it, “Creative Minister ends up being where we were going, and that’s right behind Nest on the inside.”

Nest, the only filly in the Belmont field, stumbled at the break, got bumped by Rich Strike in their first strides and traveled around the track in third place most of the way before angling out to finish second.

“If we get through (on the first turn) and he follows Nest, he’s probably third, two or three lengths off the lead on the inside, where he’s comfortable,” Reed said. “I think we’d get a whole different race, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

Adding injury to insult, Rich Strike’s left eye was swollen from the dirt and sand that had been kicked back during the 1 1/2-mile trip around the main track at Belmont Park.

“He’s run every race getting dirt in his face,” Reed said. “He’s never had that. It scratched his eye, and it stayed closed for almost two or three days. We didn’t know that until he got back to the barn. We didn’t bring that out as an excuse because there’s a lot of things that I think went wrong, including my instructions.”

As medicine got that inflamed eye back to normal in short order, the Belmont experience reinforced Reed’s belief that Rich Strike needs to have horses to his outside in order to be most effective. That was where most of the field was as Rich Strike zoomed to his 80-1 triumph in the Derby. That did not happen in the Belmont.

“The problem was he’d never once, in any race we’d run him in, been anywhere but on the rail or in between horses,” Reed said. “In the Derby he wasn’t on the rail. He passed them, but he always had horses to his right. (The Belmont) was the first time in his life that he didn’t have a horse to his right, and he didn’t want to run. Actually, he had his head cocked to the right trying to get to the inside three or four times.”

The Travers comes with the hope of a rematch with Epicenter and Zandon, two short-priced horses who looked like they were going to finish first and second in the Derby before Rich Strike passed them. Two other Derby horses – Haskell (G1) winner Cyberknife and Dwyer (G3) victor Charge It – as well as Nest, Preakness winner Early Voting and Curlin Stakes victor Artorius, also may be in the gate Aug. 27 for the race also known as the mid-summer derby.

With triumphs in the Risen Star (G2) and Louisiana Derby (G2), runner-up finishes in the Derby and Belmont and Saturday’s victory in the Jim Dandy (G2), Epicenter does not have a Grade 1 score this year. Still, he might be the best 3-year-old male going. He certainly has Reed’s respect.

“You’ve got to beat Epicenter to win the Travers,” Reed said. “He’s the only proven 3-year-old that’s won multiple races in a row. If he doesn’t, he’s just barely beaten. He came back the other day and showed them once again that he’s the horse to beat every time we run. My hat’s off to him.”

Reid said the bigger the field in the Travers, the more likely it is for Rich Strike to have horses to his outside who make him feel comfortable. He would be even more comfortable with others racing ahead of him.

It is a safe bet they will not set the same early fractions of 21.78 and 45.36 seconds that Summer Is Tomorrow blazed May 7 at Churchill Downs. But Epicenter, Charge It and Nest could create a pace contest that would be just fine for Rich Strike to chase.

“I think it’s going to be a good pace,” Reed said. “It won’t be crazy like the Derby, but I think it will be more than legitimate. I think that will help us because we need a mile to get going and get in position, and then the last quarter is survival of the fittest.”

Reed has heard the conventional wisdom that Rich Strike is pace dependent, that he might never again see a race take shape to his liking the way the Derby did. He countered that the 1 1/4-mile distance has been overlooked as being something that might be more in his colt’s wheelhouse than it might be for anyone else.

“I think the aerial view in the Derby shows my horse is just as good or better than any of them at a mile-and-a-quarter,” Reed said. “But he’s got to have a trip. I don’t know how many of those other horses want to go a mile-and-a-quarter. I know mine does.”

That 10-furlong trip will mark the end of a de facto summer vacation for Rich Strike. For Reed, who had 24 lower-level winners the last three months at Belterra Park, Ellis Park, Mountaineer and Churchill Downs, it will mark his return to stakes competition.

But the last three months also have meant an ongoing whirlwind for Reed. From his office overlooking the training track at Mercury, he has fielded routine phone calls about his strings of horses as well as pitches for all sorts of business opportunities involving Rich Strike, including two movie proposals.

There also have been the well wishes and congratulations. And reactions.

“People send me videos of all these sportscasters and YouTubers and podcasters that watched (the Derby),” Reed said. “And they send me their reaction of watching it live. It’s hilarious. They’re like, ‘Come on Epicenter.’ Then they’re like, ‘Who the ‘f’ was that?’ They all have the same expression, like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ ”

And Rich Strike seems oblivious to it all. At least until guests come by his barn. And until Reed gets his tongue.

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