LEXINGTON, Ky.—On a sun-splashed bluegrass afternoon, Eric Reed stood in his clocker’s stand/racing office on the turn of the training oval at his farm on the outskirts of the city. Sitting was not a good option after the 57-year-old hurt his back last Saturday—the day he crumpled to the ground in the Churchill Downs paddock after winning the Kentucky Derby in a once-a-century upset. Reed tweaked his lower back something fierce in that overwhelming moment.
So he stood as he talked to a visitor. A sign outside the shack said, “Talk Derby To Me,” and that’s what Reed did, reliving the glory of Rich Strike striking it rich in the Run for the Roses at 80-1 odds. On his desk was a bag of chili-cheese Fritos and a few empty soda bottles. There also were bottles of Raid insect spray to keep the wasps at bay. “With this, I’m Clint Eastwood,” Reed said, grabbing a bottle. “Without it, I’m scared of ‘em.”
On the walls were pictures of horses who had won races for him, a few framed horseshoes and two pictures of Donald Trump—the former President had called him Sunday night, put in touch by Fox News host Sean Hannity, to congratulate Reed on his miracle triumph.
It had been a surreal swirl of events. Everything had changed. Yet nothing was truly different.
Eric Reed was the same person with the same horse sense he had before the first Saturday in May. A professional commitment to put the animals first helped Reed and Rich Strike owner Rick Dawson make the jarring decision that was announced Thursday: for the first time in 37 years, and one of the rare times ever, a healthy Kentucky Derby winner is skipping the Preakness and bypassing a bid for the Triple Crown.
It is a serious blow to a reeling sport, putting a feel-good story on ice at a time when it is acutely needed. But these guys got here by a different route, a route littered with hard times and heartache, humbling losses, and no fanfare, attention or adulation. They got to this dream spot in thoroughbred racing with no experience, connections or commitments in the politics and alliances of big-time thoroughbred racing. They wandered in from the margins of the sport and shocked the world.
When you’re a complete outsider to the Triple Crown, how much allure does it actually hold? When the upper echelon of racing has ignored you forever, how much duty do you feel to prop it up by continuing a long-shot quest that isn’t in your horse’s best interests? Not enough to jeopardize the career of the best horse you’ve ever had, and ever will have. That’s why they could say no to an opportunity (and daunting challenge) that almost no one turns down.
On Tuesday, Reed told Sports Illustrated he wasn’t sure what he would do about the Preakness. He sounded like he was willing to bypass the second leg of the Triple, but couldn’t bring himself to say it. Instead, he said the decision would come Saturday, after “Ritchie” worked at Churchill Downs.
“It’s going to be a tough, tough call,” Reed said. “Saturday, I’ll know. He’s got to be 120 percent, not 100.”
But the decision was made Thursday, when Dawson sent out a release saying they were out of the Preakness and pointing toward the Belmont.
“With our tremendous effort and win in the Derby, it’s very, very tempting to alter our course and run in the Preakness at Pimlico, which would be a great honor for all our group,” the statement read. “However, after much discussion and consideration with my trainer, Eric Reed, and a few others, we are going to stay with our plan of what’s best for Ritchie and what’s best for our group, and pass on running in the Preakness, and point toward the Belmont in approximately five weeks.”
Reed acknowledged this week that Rich Strike had “his work cut out for him” in the Preakness. The phrase “horses for courses” is rooted in long-standing fact and this is not the course for Rich Strike.
The Preakness is 1/16th of a mile shorter than the Derby, and it was at about that point where Rich Strike roared past Epicenter in deep stretch at Churchill. There always is discussion of the higher turns at Pimlico, and the murderous Derby pace, which set up the race for a closer, is unlikely to be duplicated. Then, there is the competition: Epicenter is confirmed for the Preakness and will likely be the favorite regardless of who else runs. “He was the horse I thought we had to beat,” Reed said of Epicenter in the Derby, and the same will be true at Pimlico.
So the race dynamics were working against Rich Strike. The calendar was, too.
Reed has never run Rich Strike on less than three weeks’ rest between starts and spaces most of his horse’s races four or five weeks apart. Many trainers opt for schedules along those lines now. The Triple Crown, an early 20th century construct with three races in a span of 35 days, runs counter to that approach.
(For at least 15 years, I’ve advocated for changing the Triple Crown to the following calendar: the Kentucky Derby stays on the first Saturday in May; the Preakness moves to the first Saturday in June; the Belmont is contested on the Fourth of July, when the competition for viewers is midseason baseball and hot dog eating contests. It would increase the chances of horses running in all three legs, but when American Pharoah ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015, no one wanted to consider those changes anymore.)
In a vacuum, Reed would keep a colt bred for distance out of the Preakness and point him toward the 1 1/2-mile Belmont on June 11, the third leg of the Triple Crown. (If Rich Strike hadn’t scratched into the Derby at the last minute, the plan was to point him toward the Belmont with a prep race—the Peter Pan Stakes—in between.) Racing in the Run for the Roses and Belmont and skipping the Preakness is an increasingly popular strategy for everyone who doesn’t win the Derby.
But for the Derby winner? That would be wildly unpopular.
The last time a healthy Derby winner skipped the Preakness was 1985, when Spend A Buck was instead lured to the Jersey Derby by a $2 million bonus. In 2020, trainer Bill Mott had no real interest in the Preakness after winning the Derby by disqualification with Country House, and when that horse spiked a fever, he had a reason not to go. (As it turned out, Country House never ran another step after winning the Derby at 65-1.)
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who has had little use for the Preakness, reluctantly sent Derby winners Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017) to Pimlico. Both finished eighth. Pletcher bowed to the racing tradition in part because, as one of the leading trainers in America, he had a stable full of other candidates for the big races.
Eric Reed? No such luxury. This is the horse of a lifetime to be handled with care. If that means standing up to the entire racing industry and deflating the Triple Crown, so be it.
“Man, we’ve only got one Ritchie and might not get another one, so we’ve got to do what’s right,” he said Tuesday. “No matter how much glory and fun and stuff is out there—at the end of the day, when he retires from racing, if we made the right decisions, none of this will matter.”
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