Striking it rich with Rich Strike

by Alan Leavitt

I just had occasion to glance over the extended pedigree of the recent Kentucky Derby winner, Rich Strike, and the inbreeding was, to plagiarize from the colt’s name, striking.

As you’ll recall, Rich Strike was the second longest shot ever to win thoroughbred racing’s most prestigious race. That he was the beneficiary of a deadly speed duel between the two favorites doesn’t change the fact that on May 7, 2022 he was the best horse in the 20-horse field.

He only drew into the race at the very last minute, thanks to the latest possible scratch by trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Here, a personal opinion RE: the 20-horse field that Rich Strike laid to rest. I’ve always felt that a 20-horse field was basically an unfair contest, what with the bumping, jamming, collisions, and being forced to race wide around the turns.

Rich Strike, however, starting from as far as out as the gate went, still managed to find his way through and around all the clutterers without giving up too much ground on the turns. That was to the credit of his jockey, Sonny Leon, who learned his trade on the second tier tracks of Ohio, and learned it well.

But back to Rich Strike and his pedigree. He’s inbred, 2 by 3, to Smart Strike, and his sire, Keen Ice, is inbred, 3 by 3, to Deputy Minister. That’s about as deep of concentration of blood as you’re going to find in any standardbred, and I’ve found it so rarely as to come to doubt it actually exists in any of our present day stakes winners.

But it surely exists in Rich Strike, and I offer it as proof positive that, when done properly, inbreeding can create a synergy, i.e. two plus two equals seven. It’s also notable that Smart Strike is sired by Mr. Prospector, who proves again that it’s the 2-year-old racing year that gives the best insight into a stallion’s future potential as a sire.

Mr. Prospector raced only at 2, when he was devastating, despite being trained by someone who was roundly criticized by everyone who had a printable opinion. He wound up standing in Florida, where he got very limited opportunity. Despite numerous handicaps, Mr. Prospector showed someone with keen eyesight that he was a real sire. I’m not sure who it was, but a major Kentucky breeder braved the Florida alligators and snakes, bought Mr. Prospector, and the rest is all Rock ‘n Roll, as they say in Detroit.

Wait, before we hit the dance floor, two quick final thoughts about Rich Strike. I don’t like his chances in the Belmont. I can’t give you any specific reasons, but it’s just my intuition.

However, I do like his chances as a sire, even though he only made four starts at 2. Clearly he was no hell as a racehorse at 2, but he did win $38,069, which isn’t totally chicken feed.

But it’s his inbreeding that gives him a real shot as a sire. Now we’ll see which Big or Medium Sized Dog from the sport of king’s is smart enough to scoop him up. Or maybe even a Small Dog, who knows, when you’re talking about the rich folks who live on the other side of the tracks. And hands down, this week Rich Strike wins the I’m My Own Grandpa Award, an award created and awarded by this kid only.

Back to our real world, I was flattered to hear from Andy Cohen, asking me some questions RE: his two nice mares, High Minded and Find Happiness.

For those who aren’t familiar with him, Andy is a nationally celebrated legal analyst, and also an extremely smart and equally nice guy. He’s been a long-time client of Linda Toscano, one of the best trainers in our business.

Both of Cohen’s fillies are by Captaintreacherous, and out of Auniqueaquistion, by Cole Muffler. The only place I could think to look was their 2-year-old racing year when I tried to figure out which was the best bet to be a good producer.

No clues there, because they both raced successfully at 2. Since I don’t believe that a mare’s phenotype, the living horse, which includes her racing record, has anything to do with her genotype, which is her genetic profile and includes her inheritable speed gene, I had nothing to go by.

So I started working my way back through the dams of these two mares of Cohen’s. Nothing rang a bell in my memory till I hit their fifth dam, Ocean Bird. She belonged to one of my closest friends, who was also a transformative figure in the history of our sport, Stan Bergstein. Stan left harness racing a lot better than he found it, and no one has taken his place since we lost him. Stan always made me proud to be a Jew.

Going back another generation I found a good producer named Ella Pence. One of her daughters was a mare of mine, Tarella, by Tar Heel. She clicked several times with one of my sons of Adios, Airliner.

Airliner was another great example of the importance of 2-year-old racing brilliance to foreshadow future sire potency. Airliner won the first 2-year-old stake of his year, at Goshen, beating all the other good colts in his year.

He came out of that race with some physical problems that couldn’t be solved in those early days. I should mention that he was owned at two by Leonard J. and Helen Buck, which meant he was selected as a yearling because he was great bred and a terrific individual. The Bucks bought only the best and price was no object.

Ned Bower, a good trainer and driver, was hired as a private trainer by the Bucks when Airliner was 3. Bower, a good friend, told me that even though Airliner was completely broken down by then, he could still feel glimpses of his ability and class when he sat behind him.

The Bucks finally gave up on Airliner, and sent him through the Harrisburg sale that fall. Two brothers who operated a breeding farm called Shadydale, in Georgia, bought him for $3,700 in the auction ring.

Despite every conceivable handicap, Airliner did enough from his first three crops to convince a young, but ambitious breeder from Hanover, PA to syndicate Airliner for $600,000. The horse went on to be one of the top pacing sires of his day. And this kid was the young guy who syndicated him.

I still haven’t answered the basic question Andy Cohen asked me about what to do with his two full sisters, High Minded and Find Happiness.

So here it is: Sell them both this fall, Andy. While there’s no reason they can’t both be top producers, I see you strictly as a racehorse guy, one who loves the action. They’ll sell well, and you can take the money and buy one or two chancy yearlings that you and Linda both like. And if your luck holds true, you’ll have a lot of fun with them next year and the year after.

And every time they go to the gate, they’ll have the added advantage of me cheering them on, loudly.