The lasting impression that many casual fans have of Rich Strike’s Kentucky Derby experience is not his heart-stopping late drive to secure the upset victory, but his savaging of the pony horse that led him back to the winner’s circle afterward.
Standing outside of the horse’s stall at Saratoga Race Course on Tuesday morning, trainer Eric Reed said he has been working on a bit of image rehabilitation for the colt along with his training toward the summer and fall’s big races, including a planned start in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes on Aug. 27.
“He’s a playful horse, he’s not a mean horse. He’s a colt,” Reed said. “So, if you want to go up to him and pet him, sometimes he’ll let you pet him, and sometimes he’ll snip at you and play. He’s not trying to hurt you, but he’ll pinch you.
“So many people wanted to come see him after the Derby, and when they get there, the first thing they want to do is pet him,” the trainer continued. “He likes peppermints, so we gave him some peppermints, and I started playing with his tongue a little bit. For whatever reason, he’ll stick his tongue out, and when you grab his tongue, it’s like a sedative. You can put a 4-year-old kid up there and let him hug him, and he’ll just stand there with his eyes closed, and let him do it. I’ve got him now where if I know someone wants to pet him, I’ll mess around with him for a second, he’ll stick his tongue out, and people can come up and get their pictures and pet him, and do the things they want to do without getting bit.”
Rich Strike has seen plenty of foot traffic since arriving in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. on Aug. 14, and occupying a stall in Dale Romans’ barn, overlooking the track’s far turn.
Reed and a team of five employees will remain in Saratoga with the Derby winner as he trains toward the Travers, which would be his first start since finishing fifth in the Belmont Stakes on June 11.
The trainer has gotten good at diversifying his horses’ and staff’s schedules. He currently has runners competing regularly at Belterra Park in Ohio, Mountaineer Park in West Virginia, Presque Isle Downs in Pennsylvania, and Ellis Park in Kentucky, all shuttling to and from his Mercury Training Center in Lexington, Ky., between efforts.
Even so, taking his “A-team” of horsemen out of that rotation, and reducing his own presence to remote access, over one horse in New York for two weeks has caused him to lean on his personnel more than he has in a while.
“My wife and and daughter, and the guys back home are going way beyond the call of duty, but they’re holding the fort down,” Reed said. “They don’t get the credit they deserve, because they win a lot of races when I’m not around. They run a lot of horses. They’re saving me right now.”
With the Midwest operation in capable hands, Reed remained singularly focused on getting his star adjusted to his new surroundings, and preparing him for a tilt with many of the horses he toppled three months ago at Churchill Downs.
Part of that process will involve getting Rich Strike used to the deep Saratoga main track. Looking back on the colt’s lackluster Belmont Stakes effort, Reed said Rich Strike never seemed to settle over the surface, so getting him acclimated to the Saratoga footing without running him into the ground will be a priority for himself and exercise rider Gabriel Lagunes, who also made the two-week trip to New York.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t overdo it and make him body sore,” Reed said. “That’s what we’re trying to do this first week, is try to get him accustomed to it, and not do a whole lot. His work Friday or Saturday will be an easy work. We don’t want a :48, we want a :49 or :50, and just a good gallop out in 1:02 would be fine. Then, another light work in the week leading up to the race just to keep him happy, but I don’t want to overdo it and get him muscle sore over the deep track.”
It’s clear in conversation with Reed that the lackluster Belmont effort still weighs on him. The word “frustrated” came up frequently when discussing the race, mostly turned inward over his strategy to keep the horse off the rail.
Looking ahead to the Travers, Reed indicated that the horse and rider would largely control the playbook, hoping for some pace up front and a clean trip to make a late move.
Jockey Sonny Leon hoists the Kentucky Derby trophy after riding Rich Strike to victory
Sonny Leon, who has piloted Rich Strike for every start of his 3-year-old campaign, will once again have the mount for the Travers. The trainer and jockey have not had as much face-to-face contact since Leon moved his tack from Belterra Park to Gulfstream Park last month, but they’re still on the same wavelength when it comes to the big horse.
“He texts me every day and calls me every weekend,” Reed said. “Gabriel gets on him every day and lets me know what’s going on, and as long as Gabe’s happy, Sonny and me are happy.”
Reed said Rich Strike’s physical and emotional development during the horse’s hiatus from the races has also helped him put the Belmont behind him, and focus on what’s ahead.
“He’s put on size, definitely,” Reed said. “Everybody that’s seen him when he got here said he’s grown and put on weight. I’ve seen him every day, so it’s hard for me to notice that big of a change, but he’s training a lot smarter. He’s a lot more relaxed in the stall.
“I want him to keep as focused as he is right now,” he continued. “He’s grown up a lot with the 10-week break. BamBam (outrider Juan “BamBam” Galvez, who worked with Rich Strike at Belmont Park) told me his mind is much better. If he’s matured a little upstairs, that’ll help him in the post parade and getting to the gate.”
Reed and Rich Strike are guests of trainer Dale Romans in Barn 27 at Saratoga, but the relationship between the two trainers reaches back to Barn 7 at Latonia Race Course, better known today as Turfway Park.
Rich Strike has 24-hour surveillance between all of his staff at the track, but Reed said having a friendly face in charge of the barn helps relieve some of the stress of being in a new locale.
“He and I have been friends for a long, long time. I guess 40 years or so,” Reed said. “His dad trained, and mine trained, and we were both in the same barn together then, and we hung out a lot together back then. This horse’s dad is one Dale’s pretty proud of, having Keen Ice as the sire of Rich Strike (Keen Ice bested American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers). He’s been real good helping us out. It’s nice for it to be someone you know and grew up with.”
Reed is not a regular presence at the Saratoga meet, but Rich Strike’s Travers will not be his first time around upstate New York. He sent a small string of runners to the track in 2011, and he has shipped from time to time during other seasons.
A fortnight in Saratoga Springs, though, is rather new for the trainer and his staff. For regular Saratoga revelers, the town is just as well-known for what there is to do after the races, and with just one horse to keep an eye on, Reed will have plenty of time to explore, and perhaps find a favorite haunt.
“I’ve got three different people taking me out, so I’ll give you an answer on Friday,” he said, when asked about his favorite spot in town. “I’m not usually a guy who goes out and eats. I sit in my room and take care of my chart for tomorrow, but up here, you get a chance to do a little bit more.”
Instead, Reed said he was looking forward to a more serene pursuit.
“I’m going to go down to Lake Saratoga and fish a little bit,” he said. “Just sitting with a pole in my hand is fine. If I catch one, great. If not, I’m still enjoying it. It gets me to not think about business.”
Wherever he goes, there is a chance he might be recognized as a Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, and at the racetrack, his still freshly-minted celebrity status will be hard to avoid.
It’s a fact of life for many horsemen during the Saratoga meet, where morning training will see a “who’s who” of the game’s top horses whizz by at any given moment, and evening dinner at local restaurants is an opportunity for owners and trainers to be seen, whether they necessarily want it or not.
It’s a lot to manage, but Reed welcomed the challenge. He thinks his horse is up for it, too, both on the track and in the shedrow. In many ways, this is not the same Rich Strike we saw in May.
“It’s humbling, for me especially,” he said. “Just having one of these in the barn and what goes with it is kind of overwhelming sometimes. You’ve got to take your hat off to all these guys who have a barnful like that, because I don’t know how they do it. Maybe they’re used to it, I don’t know, but if I had five of those, I don’t know how I’d handle what’s going on.
“I think everybody deserves a shot to talk to him, take pictures of him,” Reed said about Rich Strike. “He’s a Derby winner, but he’s a bit different than most, just the way it happened. I feel like it’s our obligation to let everybody have a chance to spend some time with him.”