MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Eighty-to-one.
When the gates opened at Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, that wasn’t Rich Strike’s odds being displayed. It was a death sentence.
Especially when you weren’t even in the at all just a few days earlier. Rich Strike got in only because another horse scratched out of the field, and his connections didn’t find out until one minute before the deadline when a call came.
The voice on the other end of the phone told Rick Dawson, owner of Rich Strike, that there had been a scratch in the 12th race at Churchill Downs — adding “the Kentucky Derby” — and asked if he wanted to run his horse.
Talk about the proverbial rhetorical question.
Dawson, working with trainer Eric Reed, who had almost gotten out of the game a few years earlier when a lightning strike on his barn in Lexington had caused a fire and killed much of his livestock. Jockey Sonny Leon also toiled out of the limelight, a journeyman who is dominant at Mahoning Valley Race Track in Youngstown, Ohio, which is not terribly far from Louisville in mileage but not even in the same universe in horse racing.
This was the girl elected queen of the high school prom asking you to be her date. You don’t say no.
But you also don’t win at 80-1 against the best 3-year-old horses in the country. You simply find a place at the back of the pack, which is easy to do when you are coming out of the 21st post position.
Or do you?
Rich Strike won the race he couldn’t win.
“Miracles happen,” said Reed, the trainer, on Monday morning. “This is another miracle. Everything happens for a reason in life so, never give up and always trust your dreams.”
That was a message that should be reverberating right here in West Virginia, right there at Milan Puskar Stadium in the WVU football offices, to say nothing of echoing through the hills and hollows across the state.
Nothing. I looked up the odds on WVU to win the NCAA Football championship this season. Caesar’s Sports Book had it at 300-to-1.
If Rich Strike can win, why not WVU?
Okay, considering that Alabama and Georgia check in at 13-4, just over 4-to-1, and even though every team in the Big 12 has better odds except for Texas Tech at 500-1 and Kansas at 2,500-1 — which is an underlay — it would be insane for WVU to do anything but follow its dream after Saturday’s outcome.
See, since those odds were established, WVU has gotten a new trainer and new jockey on the offensive side of the ball. It brought in Graham Harrell to train its offense and quarterback JT Daniels to guide it through the maze that it will face heading into a new season. In truth, Daniels will be facing something very similar to what Leon faced as he put together one of the most exciting and memorable rides in racing history.
He started at the back, took his horse from the outside post to the rail, far behind the blue bloods ahead of him. Those horses could have been named Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State and Baylor.
He bided his team through a fast pace, then began weaving through the pack like a New York cabbie trying to get somewhere at rush hour. He was unseen by all, the track announcer or the jockeys on the contending horses at the front.
Even owner Dawson and trainer Reed, knew their horse was full of run, but he was so far back and there was so much traffic as he began closing the gap.
“Oh my God,” thought Reed, “we might finish third in the Derby.”
Dawson had the same thought. “We’re going to hit the board,” he said to himself, before noting that the race was to be his.
“Oh my God,” he said. “We’re going to win the Derby. We’re going to win the Derby.”
As the horse caught the front runners Reed admitted “I fell down. I didn’t see him win.”
Friends converged on him. “I was mugged as if I scored the winning touchdown,” he said.
The comparison was not lost in these parts.
A year ago WVU lost three games by less than seven points … “a winning touchdown.” Three more wins and a 6-win season goes to a 9-win season and a quality bowl game.
No one doubts this year’s team is improved.
Is there are miracle there waiting to happen? Probably not, but it’s moments like Saturday’s Kentucky Derby that offer inspiration to everyone that nothing is impossible, no hill to steep to climb, no challenge too big.
Seems like we’ve seen a lot of it in sports … St. Peter’s in the NCAA basketball tournament, Tiger Woods’ performance in this year’s Masters, the Cincinnati Bengals reaching the Super Bowl, Jacksonville State beating Florida State last year in football, KANSAS BEATING TEXAS IN FOOTBALL.
Like the man said, “never give up and always trust your dreams.”