The late Meat Loaf once sang “two out of three ain’t bad,” and the connections of Rich Strike would certainly agree should their unlikely Kentucky Derby winner take the Belmont Stakes this Saturday, June 11.
It would be an amazing outcome considering that as little as 36 hours before the Kentucky Derby, Rich Strike wasn’t even in the race; the also-eligible horse only made the field with the late scratch of Etherial Road the Friday before the run for the roses.
The 81-1 Rich Strike then shocked the racing world on May 7 with a brilliant ride by jockey Sandy Leon, taking advantage of a suicidal pace and catching the favorite Epicenter just before the wire.
It was a career best performance by Rich Strike; he got a 101 Beyer figure, 17 points higher than his previous run in the Jeff Ruby Steaks five weeks earlier. Trainer Eric Reed and the owners quickly realized it would be a big ask to have Rich Strike try to repeat that performance in the Preakness Stakes just two weeks after the Derby, in the faint hope of an unfathomable Triple Crown sweep.
So they made the wise decision to skip the second leg of the Triple Crown, and freshen Rich Strike up for the Belmont Stakes on June 11, five weeks after the Kentucky Derby.
So far, Rich Strike looks ready to take on all comers. He galloped out 2 miles over the Belmont Park main track on Saturday, and Reed said he loved what he saw from the colt.
“He was great,” said Reed. “The rider said he was moving good and liked it. When he came down the stretch, I was loving the way he was moving today. He can get into his stride and not get distracted here. We went two miles today and tomorrow we’ll probably back it up a little bit.”
Workouts aside, the question is whether Rich Strike can win the Belmont Stakes and prove his upset Kentucky Derby victory wasn’t a fluke.
The last time a Kentucky Derby winner won the Belmont was in 2018, when Justify swept all three legs of the Triple Crown. But the last horse to win the Derby and the Belmont, without winning the Preakness, was Thunder Gulch in 1995, though he ran in all three races.
A pedigree of stamina
The Belmont Stakes is the most challenging race a three-year-old colt or filly will likely face in their life. It’s 1 ½ miles, a quarter-mile longer than the Derby. A horse’s pedigree comes into play more in the Belmont than any other Triple Crown race because to win it, a horse requires both tactical speed and the stamina to go all 12 furlongs and finish first under the wire.
Rich Strike certainly seems to have the pedigree to be a Belmont Stakes winner.
His sire was Keen Ice, famous for beating Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the 10-furlong Travers Stakes in 2015. Keen Ice’s father was the great Curlin, the 2007 Preakness winner who lost that year’s Belmont Stakes by a nose to the filly Rags to Riches.
Rich Strike’s dam, Gold Strike, finished third in the 2005 Queen’s Plate, the 10-furlong race that’s Canada’s answer to the Kentucky Derby. Her sire was Smart Strike, who logged wins around two turns in two major stakes races at Monmouth Park: the Salvador Mile and the Iselin Handicap, both in 1996.
The pedigree checks out. Now what about Rich Strike’s tactical speed? He certainly demonstrated that in the Kentucky Derby, as he was full of run in the final quarter-mile.
Chances are the Belmont Stakes won’t be nearly as hot as the Kentucky Derby’s, in which Summer is Tomorrow ran an opening half-mile in a near-record 45.36 seconds. The current field doesn’t figure to have a speed demon that will run set early blazing fractions.
But Rich Strike could benefit from a similar pace set up as last year’s Belmont Stakes, in which Essential Quality defeated Hot Rod Charlie.
In that race, Hot Rod Charlie flashed rare early speed in the Belmont, running the opening half in a swift 46.49 seconds. Essential Quality stalked the front-runners from midpack through the first seven furlongs of the race, then made a three-wide move around the far turn, took the lead from Hot Rod Charlie at the quarter-pole and edged clear from him at the end.
His biggest threat?
Perhaps Rich Strike’s biggest threat in the Belmont Stakes is We The People, who ran his best race in the 9-furlong Peter Pan Stakes on May 14 at Belmont Park. He went to the lead from the start, set a moderate pace and drove clear in the stretch, winning by 10 lengths.
We The People also has solid pedigree indicating that he’d relish the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes. His sire, Constitution, won the Florida Derby and Donn Handicap, and his grandfather, Tiznow, famously won the 1 ¼ miles Breeders Cup Classic in two consecutive years, including the 2001 running at Belmont Park.
If We The People goes to the front in the Belmont and sets modest opening fractions (24 seconds for the first quarter, 48 for the second quarter), Rich Strike will have to be much closer to the pace than he was in the Kentucky Derby. And then the questions will be if he can demonstrate the tactical speed necessary to go when asked for his best run, and have the staying power to complete the Belmont before anyone else.
Otherwise, We The People might be able to carry the field wire-to-wire.