In the weeks leading up to the 148th Kentucky Derby, much was made of the chances for Canadian-bred colt Messier to become just the third Canadian-bred horse ever to win the “Run for the Roses.” Attempting to join Sunny’s Halo in 1983 and Northern Dancer in 1964, Sam-Son Farms-bred Messier (named after Canadian hockey legend Mark Messier) was sent off at odds of 7-1 and would briefly lead the field of 20 around the far turn before eventually fading to 15th.
However, it would be little known 80-1 long shot Rich Strike that would eventually wear the famous garland of roses and post the second-largest upset in the race’s history. While he may have been foaled at Calumet Farm in Lexington, Kentucky, a closer look at Rich Strike’s pedigree shows he’s much more Canadian than one might think.
A high percentage of Thoroughbreds can trace back their lineage in some way to a Canadian sire or dam thanks to the great influence left on the breed by sires such as the incomparable Northern Dancer. Rich Strike is no different, as he has a plethora of family both top and bottom that carry blood from the Great White North. On top, one need look no further than his sire Keen Ice, who upset Triple Crown Champion American Pharoah in the 2015 G1 Travers Stakes. Keen Ice’s father Curlin was by Canadian Smart Strike, a half-brother to 1991 Canadian Triple Crown winner and Canadian Horse of the Year Dance Smartly. Curlin’s dam Sherriff’s Deputy was by ‒ you guessed it ‒ another Canadian in 1981 Horse of the Year, Deputy Minister. On his dam side, Keen Ice once again has the Deputy Minister line by way of his mother Medomak whose sire Awesome Again was a winner of both the 1997 Queen’s Plate and 1998 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Canadian blood and connections continue to be prominent on the bottom half of Rich Strike’s pedigree, as his Manitoba-bred mother Gold Strike is by Smart Strike and out of the British Columbia-bred mare Brassy Gold, who passes along the Northern Dancer line through her own sire Dixieland Brass. Trained by Russell, Manitoba native Blair Miller for Winnipeg businessman Richard “Dick” Bonnycastle’s Harlequin Ranches, Gold Strike broke her maiden second time out in the Debutante Stakes before romping by 15 ¾ lengths in the Buffalo Stakes at Assiniboia Downs. For her sophomore campaign she was moved to Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack and the barn of trainer Reade Baker where she would win the G3 Selene Stakes and Woodbine Oaks en route to the 2005 Sovereign Award as Canada’s Champion 3 year-old filly.
Retired in 2006, Gold Strike would move to the breeding shed and was purchased in 2015 by Calumet Farm in foal to Sky Mesa for $230,000 USD. Prior to Rich Strike’s stunning upset in the Kentucky Derby, Gold Strike’s best offspring was a 2011 Canadian-bred filly by Sky Mesa named Llanarmon who, like her mother, would break her maiden the second time out in a stakes race, capturing the 2013 edition of the G2 Natalma Stakes at Woodbine. In all, Llanarmon would win three races, two of which were stakes, and over $375,000 USD in purses.
Rich Strike would have a rather inauspicious start to his racing career as he debuted in a maiden allowance event for two-year-olds on the turf at Ellis Park last August. Going off as third choice in the wagering, Rich Strike would break and finish last with the Equibase trip line summing it up in one word: he was “outrun,” beaten 14-and-a-half lengths.
For his next start he would be shipped to Churchill Downs and switched to the dirt, entered in a maiden claiming event with a price tag of $30,000. This time he would not disappoint, crushing the field by 17 ¼ lengths. Owner RED TR-Racing and trainer Eric Reed dropped a slip on the chestnut colt that no one in their wildest dreams could predict just seven-and-a-half months later would become the first horse ever to win the Kentucky Derby after having been claimed. The win also provided Calumet Farm with their tenth Derby winner as breeder, extending their already record number in that respect.
Winless in five starts since being claimed heading into the first Saturday in May, he was able to produce two thirds in stakes company but failed to secure enough points as one of the top 20 three-year-olds to earn a spot in the starting gate. This is where fate would step in and provide the plot for a Disney movie not even the greatest writer could pen. On Friday, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas ruled out his entrant Ethereal Road, allowing Rich Strike to draw into the race.
After breaking from outside post number 20 and settling at the back of the field, jockey Sonny Leon would bide his time, giving his mount a patient ride and waiting until the far turn to begin his run. In deep stretch when it looked like favourite Epicenter would give veteran trainer Steve Asmussen his long-awaited first Derby victory (previously 0-for-23) Rich Strike found a path on the inside to make a late charge and prevail by ¾ of a length, shocking the entire racing world and in doing so bringing great pride to his Canadian ancestry.