Sometime around 2:30 am on Sunday morning, about seven hours after his horse had pulled off the greatest Kentucky Derby upset in a century, Eric Reed finally stretched out on his bed. But sleep on Sunday was as uncatchable as his horse Rich Strike had been on Saturday.
Reed, who’s trained Rich Strike since last September, couldn’t stop running the race in his mind, even after watching it dozens of times on the Churchill Downs screens and, later, at home with friends who had waited until well past midnight for him to return. Every time, Rich Strike bobs and weaves through traffic, coming from literally the back of the pack, sliding through 17 other horses like mercury, then spotting daylight and cutting to the inside, outrunning the two overwhelming favorites with only a scant few yards to spare .
Reed remembered embracing his father Herb, a horse-training legend, as the horses came down the stretch, shouting, “My God, Dad, we’re going to win the Derby!” He choked up at the thought of it, and then got up. Sleep wouldn’t be coming that night, and after another battery of celebrations and interviews, Reed would only get a couple hours on Sunday night.
The weekend was all about celebrating Rich Strike’s achievement. Now, it’s time for Reed to think about the encore.
“We want to go be a part of history,” Reed says. “When we won the Derby, we had to stop and look at the whole picture. It’s not as simple as it once was. We have to do what’s best for Richie.”
The Kentucky Derby is the first jewel in horse racing’s Triple Crown, and the second two follow in rapid succession. Less than two weeks from now, the Preakness Stakes will take place at Pimlico Downs in Maryland, and three weeks after that, the Belmont Stakes in New York will complete the trifecta.
However, scheduling out the racing slate of an elite horse isn’t as simple as loading him into the trailer and rolling east.
“Belmont is the most realistic race to win next,” Reed says. “The Preakness has tighter turns and a shorter distance [1 3/16 miles versus 1 ½ miles]. Belmont has big, wide, sweeping turns, and we won’t have to pass 19 horses.”
Belmont is such a perfect race for Rich Strike, in fact, that Reed and owner Rick Dawson had been eyeing the June race all along. They’d planned to keep five weeks between Rich Strike’s starts — the Derby and the Belmont Stakes — and adding the Preakness in there adds a whole new layer of complexity.
“It’s not that we can’t compete,” Reed says, “It’s, does that shoot [a chance at winning] Belmont completely?” The risk of injury, the risk of overtraining, the risk of a bad finish … it all plays into the question of whether to chase history.
Reed and Dawson will watch Rich Strike’s workouts this week and make the call, probably sometime on Thursday.
It’s the kind of nice-to-have problem that Reed couldn’t have imagined even as recently as Friday morning. In a tale that’s already taking on the hue of a legend, Reed and his team were preparing to send Rich Strike to New York to train for the Peter Pan Stakes, a race held this coming weekend at Belmont. It was apparently going to be a frustrating end to a week where the horse had run extraordinarily well in training sessions.
“I was thinking how I hate to take a horse training this good and wait another week,” Reed recalls. “We were going to do the Peter Pan, and then it would be a month to the Belmont.”
But at literally the last minute, Ethereal Road scratched and made room for Rich Strike, one of those minor moments that ends up crucial in retrospect.
It was one of so many moments in Reed’s career that had to occur at precisely that instant, in precisely that way.
Take, for instance, the moment that Reed and Dawson first connected through a mutual friend. Dawson had been experiencing a run of inordinately bad luck, and was prepared to walk away from the horse racing business entirely. Reed knew how to get Dawson pointed back in the right direction.
“I told him, ‘You need good luck without spending a ton of money,’” Reed said. “I knew we needed to claim some young horses, win, and let him see the thrill of being a winner.”
That was the second moment: when Reed and Dawson first laid eyes on Rich Strike. They’d been looking for lightly raced 2-year-olds, and Rich Strike, competing at Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky, fit the bill. Racing on turf last August, Rich Strike ran dead last, but Reed could see that the horse had more skill on dirt. So he put in a $30,000 claim for the horse prior to a race on Sept. 17 — at Churchill Downs, just to add to the fairy tale — and Rich Strike dominated the competition.
Reed brought Rich Strike to his Mercury Equine Center in Lexington, where the horse could train in peace. Mercury is Reed’s horse Shangri-La, a vast, quiet training ground with room for a five-furlong track, an equine cold spa, and paddocks to let the horses run free when their training is over for the day. Reed purchased the center in 2005 after long years on the road away from his family, and it soon became a refuge for him as well as his horses.
“I thought I’d reached the pinnacle of my career,” Reed says. “All the barns were full. I had great customers. Things couldn’t have been better. I thought, I’ve made it. I’ve got no more hills to conquer. I just need to sustain.”
And then it all nearly vanished.
In the early hours of Dec. 18, 2016, a fire, likely caused by lightning, began in one of the stables. Rescuers managed to save some of the horses, but many more were lost to the flames.
“I can’t describe, I never want anyone to see what we saw,” Reed says. “Those were 23 dead babies, my horses, my children … Anger set in. Hurt. Disgust. I never questioned the Lord, but I asked why. Why did I get knocked down?”
In the hours after the fire, Reed thought he was ruined. “Everybody kept saying, ‘Don’t go out this way. You’ve still got 65, 70 horses to train,’” Reed recalls. “I didn’t know if I had it in my heart to keep going, man. It was so tragic, I thought I could never get over the hurt of what happened.”
That was the third moment that led to the Kentucky Derby victory, the moment when Reed could have given up forever.
A few days after the fire, with the rubble of the barn still smoldering, Reed stood at the rail and watched other horses train. And a realization came over him.
“That love started growing again,” he says. “I told myself, ‘If you quit, those 23 horses died for nothing.’ At first I was just going to finish that crop out. And then it got better. Every day, I look back on that day.”
His voice, raw from days of celebrating and interviews, rings strong. “I know how low the lows can be,” he says, “and now I know how high the highs are.”
He was already ahead of the game, and now he’s playing with house money. That’s what happens when an 80-1 long shot pays off.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.