Can Jockey Sonny Leon Journey Wealthy Strike to a Win on the Belmont?

CINCINNATI — The Better of Ohio race card was not variety to Sonny Leon. Seven occasions he had climbed aboard what he thought was a contender solely to lose by two or 4 or six lengths. Leon’s greatest shot at profitable at Belterra Park final Friday was aboard Rumble Strip Ron within the $100,000 Inexperienced Carpet Stakes.

Like a sure experience that he took on the primary Saturday in Might, Leon allowed his colt to lope behind 11 different horses for a mile earlier than giving him his head. Rumble Strip Ron slingshotted across the remaining flip and whipped previous eight rivals within the stretch.

Alas, Leon and his colt completed a neck wanting the winner.

“Not my day,” Leon stated with a shrug, which was changed with a smile when his spouse, Cryss, and 3-month-old daughter, Paula, leaned in for a hug.

They weren’t the one ones hanging across the paddock. Twenty-somethings, mother and father with younger kids and an older couple with slot machine quarters jingling in a cup circled him. They wished selfies or packages signed by the profitable rider of the 2022 Kentucky Derby.

Leon knew a lot of their names, as they did his, lengthy earlier than he introduced an 80-1 shot named Wealthy Strike house on the Derby. For six months a yr, this racetrack and on line casino on the banks of the Ohio River is his front room.

“These are my individuals,” stated Leon, a Venezuelan. “That is my house.”

When Leon edges Wealthy Strike into the beginning gate for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park, the colt will likely be extra a curiosity than a conquering hero. The Derby winner is not even the favourite within the Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown, a race referred to as the Take a look at of the Champion due to its grueling mile-and-a-half distance.

For all however the thoroughbred racing cognoscenti, Leon is the little-known jock from a grits and exhausting toast circuit who, over two thrilling minutes in Louisville, Ky., threw down a masterpiece of big-time race driving: a swerving, rail- skimming journey worthy of a tear of appreciation from the Mona Lisa.

“It was a factor of magnificence, the experience of a lifetime,” stated Jeff Perrin, Leon’s agent, to an Aussie who, like his rider, was making his Derby debut.

The muse for that second was laid at racetracks like Belterra Park, with its oval reduce out of a pasture. Its apron is dotted with tables and umbrellas, and populated by the grooms, trainers and homeowners who’ve devoted their lives to horses and by the fanatics and retirees who can afford to whereas away a weekday afternoon.

Thirty yards away is one other world altogether. The air-conditioned on line casino is crowded and the ding, ding, ding of the slots and the avalanches of coin falls name out to the winners and losers alike.

For seven years, Leon, 32, has crisscrossed Ohio and Kentucky and Indiana and West Virginia to experience as much as 1,100 races a yr at on line casino racetracks like Belterra, competing earlier than dozens of individuals, slightly than 1000’s, and spending lonely nights away from his household .

Nonetheless, he is excellent at what he does. Final yr, he gained 226 races, the Eleventh-most within the nation.

Flavien Prat, a Frenchman who will experience the Belmont’s 2-1 morning line favourite, We the Individuals, gained simply 20 extra races than Leon final yr. But Prat, who now rides in New York, earned greater than $23 million in purses in contrast with Leon’s $3 million.

the distinction? Higher horses, greater purses.

Whereas Prat has gained greater than 40 Grade I races, which is the very best degree, the Derby was solely Leon’s second elite race. Prat averages greater than $25,000 per begin versus the Leon’s $3,000.

Leon’s victory within the Derby resonated in jockeys’ rooms at minor league tracks in every single place. It was Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson or the Jets beating the Colts in Tremendous Bowl III.

However nobody appreciated it greater than Perry Wayne Ouzts, the dean of Belterra Park’s jockey colony. At 67, he has gained 7,267 races, putting him fifth on the game’s profession record behind Corridor of Famers like Invoice Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.

Watching the Derby, Ouzts noticed Leon and Wealthy Strike on the prime of the stretch and stated he knew Leon was going to run down Prat aboard Zandon and Joel Rosario on Epicenter.

“These two are future Corridor of Famers, however he seemed higher than them within the saddle and rode a greater race,” Ouzts stated. “It simply goes to point out you that simply because a man is driving at a small observe, that does not imply that he doesn’t have any expertise. It simply signifies that he is by no means had the luck to get on the actually good horses or the chance to compete within the huge races.”

Leon is a self-made horseman. He grew up in La Victoria within the state of Aragua close to the Caribbean. He didn’t know a lot about racehorses, however he did see younger males who seemed like him — brief and light-weight, with arms that seemed like they had been pulled by with metal cable — competing on the nation’s racetracks.

After attending jockey faculty, he labored his approach up on his house circuit, profitable races and admiration for his skilled demeanor. There have been two riders forward of him in years who had made a profitable transition to America: Javier Castellano and Ramon Domínguez.

“I knew I wanted to go to America,” Leon stated, “if I wished to make a career out of driving.”

In June 2015, Leon landed at Gulfstream Park in Broward County, Fla. The plan was to gallop as many horses within the morning, for as many barns that will pay him, in hopes of catching the attention of an agent. The issue was Gulfstream at Ellis Island for Latin American jockeys who arrive with plans much like Leon’s.

“No agent would decide up my e-book,” Leon stated. However a few trainers gave him rides, and he gained sufficient cash to make his strategy to Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., close to the Ohio border.

“I do not know who advised me to go,” Leon stated. “I did not know anybody right here, however I drove 16 hours and located an condominium close to the racetrack and went to work.”

Leon rapidly established himself as a powerful and polished rider, and by 2018, after surpassing greater than $1.2 million in earnings, he caught the attention of his agent.

“He was getting higher alternatives and rising extra assured as a rider,” Perrin stated. “Sonny additionally has a pleasant approach with individuals and may talk, and that’s actually essential. jockey is aware of methods to inform a coach what a horse does properly, but in addition what he must work on.”

With the transfer to Perrin, Leon gained entry to the coach Eric Reed, who operates a powerhouse barn that’s directly old fashioned and totally trendy. His 60-acre farm outdoors Lexington, Ky., Mercury Equine Middle, has stalls for 160 horses, open pastures and a coaching observe five-eighths of a mile lengthy.

In Europe, they name this setup a coaching yard, and it’s thought-about to have the optimum circumstances for permitting a horse to be a horse.

With greater than a half-dozen racetracks in 4 states simply a few hours away, Reed and Perrin can match horses with the circumstances. Leon normally goes with them — up to now 18 months, he has had mounts on 280 of Reed’s horses, profitable at a 20 p.c clip.

“It is a very group method,” Reed stated. “I can not let you know how essential Sonny was to getting Wealthy Strike to the place he’s now.”

Final September, Reed and the horse proprietor Rick Dawson claimed Wealthy Strike for $30,000 out of a race at Churchill Downs. The son of Eager Ice was an enormous strapping colt who was bred to go the basic mile and 1 / 4. They seemed sensible the following month when Wealthy Strike completed third in a mile race at Keeneland in Lexington.

Leon didn’t experience the colt both of these occasions. However Reed and Dawson believed their proficient colt would profit from a powerful rider who would work with Wealthy Strike and be true to him. Massive-time riders, particularly because the Derby approaches, might be fickle and go away you for a higher-profile horse.

Leon rode Wealthy Strike for the primary time in December within the Gun Runner Stakes on the Honest Grounds in New Orleans. They completed fifth, far again from Epicenter, the colt they ended up working previous within the remaining strides of the Derby.

“He had expertise, however he was actually inexperienced,” Leon stated of his colt. “He was nonetheless rising up.”

Within the spring, the very best horses ship to Florida or Arkansas or to Keeneland to earn factors to qualify for the Derby. Reed, Dawson and Leon selected, fittingly, a again roads path by Turfway Park. Turfway, with its artificial racetrack, is engaging for trainers and homeowners within the winter. The floor is constant in all climate circumstances and due to this fact thought-about safer for horses.

In his remaining prep, the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway on April 2, Wealthy Strike trailed 10 different horses for three-quarters of a mile earlier than Leon requested the colt to activate the afterburners and blast alongside the rail. He did, effortlessly, and completed third.

“Now we now have a Derby horse,” Leon advised Reed.

Not fairly.

Wealthy Strike wanted the scratch of Ethereal Street within the remaining minutes of the Friday deadline to make the sector. He wanted to interrupt from the twentieth publish, hold a left to the rail, keep on with it like a magnet and run previous 14 horses within the remaining quarter-mile.

The remainder is, properly, life-changing. Is not it, Sonny?

Leon thought exhausting earlier than answering. He would have 10 mounts at Belterra and one on the Horseshoe Indianapolis on Thursday earlier than arriving in New York on Friday.

“I gained the largest race in America and, yeah, that is an honor,” Leon stated. “However I acquired to be sensible, and I acquired to be humble. I acquired to do proper by Eric and the group. They’ve supported me — all of the homeowners and trainers right here have given me my life. Possibly I transfer on sooner or later, however for now I need to keep in Ohio.”

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