Rich Strike caught the attention of trainer Eric Reed when he was entered for a $30,000 claiming price in a one-mile dirt race last Sept. 17 at Churchill Downs. Reed noted that the Keen Ice colt, bred and owned by well-regarded Calumet Farm, was beaten badly in his debut on turf and might benefit from a surface change.
Owner Richard Dawson approved when Reed made his case for claiming Rich Strike. Neither man ever imagined that the colt would go on to score one of the great upsets in Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve history, a triumph that underscores racing’s wonderful improbability and the incredible thrills that can come with Thoroughbred ownership. Rich Strike suddenly goes on to the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Saturday as a prime contender.
Dawson, a native of Oklahoma, is semi-retired from a career in the gas and oil industry. He discussed the life-changing two minutes of the Derby and his extraordinary good fortune as part of a question-and-answer session with America’s Best Racing correspondent Tom Pedulla:
PEDULLA: What has life been like since the Derby?
DAWSON: It’s been great for Rich Strike, great for my trainer, the farm folks. For me, just getting into racing has been a fun activity for me. It was never going to be a life or death kind of thing. It was just something I wanted to do and I wanted to enjoy it. Then we won the Derby and all of our lives have changed. But it really means a lot to the guys who deal with horses every day, the guy cleaning out the stall to the exercise riders, etc., and I’m so happy for all of those guys and girls, by the way. There are a lot of girls who work on the farm. He’s America’s horse now. I don’t really own him anymore. And that’s great, too.
PEDULLA: You said after the Derby that you almost left the business. What happened there?
DAWSON: Mainly I was buying small shares with others, so I was a very minority owner. I was learning the business and it was a great way to go about it. But doing that, I realized I would rather be a 100 percent owner of a horse and maybe have fewer horses and more say so in what was done and how it was done.
PEDULLA: What happened then?
DAWSON: I was introduced to Eric and I went out and visited Eric (at Mercury Equine Center in Lexington, Ky.). I liked the way Eric was set up. He has a training track right there at the farm and so I thought, ‘Well, I will give this a shot again.’ It’s been a great experience. I’m really enjoying myself and not just with Rich Strike in the Derby but the other horses I have. I have two others racing and then I’ve got a filly we bred to Keen Ice and I have a yearling out of Keen Ice. I’m kind of a Keen Ice family guy. So far, we’ve had some luck with that.
PEDULLA: It sounds as though you enjoy being involved even at the lower levels of the game.
DAWSON: I have fun with all of them. Whether they are running in an allowance race or whatever, I still have the same excitement when the bell goes off and your horse comes out. It’s a wonderful feeling.
PEDULLA: In saying that, why did you almost leave racing?
DAWSON: Being a minority owner and not having a say so, I didn’t feel like I was really learning much. I was just more an observer. I’m a hands-on kind of guy. Any business I’ve ever had, I like to be in the middle of things. I had managers and project managers. But I always felt if you are going to be in charge, you need to know every facet of the business. When I made the move to Eric and started buying horses 100 percent, it just worked out better.
PEDULLA: What year would that have been?
DAWSON: I think I moved to Eric in 2021.
PEDULLA: And when did you enter the game?
DAWSON: I’ve been in the game for six years.
PEDULLA: And you have a Derby winner after six years.
DAWSON: It’s ridiculous.
PEDULLA: It’s almost unfair.
DAWSON: It’s almost embarrassing. People ask me and I almost don’t want to say it because people spend a lifetime at it and haven’t gotten there. Like I said in another article, I’m not giving back the trophy.
PEDULLA: What drew you to Eric?
DAWSON: I liked his family, everybody at the farm. And I liked the fact that the training track was on the farm. The horses go from the stall to the five-furlong training track, work or gallop and come back. It’s very easy on a horse. You’re not down the road on a trailer. Eric is on a tractor working the track himself because he doesn’t really trust anybody else to do it. You get that personal touch and he had time for me. I liked it that he wasn’t so big that a little guy like me was ignored. It worked out pretty good.
PEDULLA: When you claimed Rich Strike, what were your expectations?
DAWSON: Just a good horse. We had no idea what we had. He seemed to be working well on dirt and we thought he might like the dirt.
PEDULLA: Was the decision to skip the Preakness Stakes an agonizing decision or very straightforward for you?
DAWSON: Very straightforward. I had actually played that scenario out in my head. If we get in the Derby and run well or bad, I just thought coming back in a couple of weeks probably wouldn’t be the best for our horse. My plan all along – and it was Eric’s as well – was that if he runs solid, we would come back in the Belmont. It turns out we won the Derby and, granted, it was very tempting because you’ve got a horse who can potentially win the Triple Crown. But we also knew it wasn’t best for our horse. That’s been our commitment all along: do what’s best for Rich Strike. And that’s what we did.
PEDULLA: How many horses have you owned, in whole or part, during your career.
DAWSON: Oh, maybe 15. Not many.
PEDULLA: It’s amazing.
DAWSON: It’s a crazy story. It’s picking a needle out of a haystack.