A native of Venezuela, Sonny Leon won the Kentucky Derby in his first attempt
With his first Kentucky Derby mount, jockey Sonny Leon pulled off the second-biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history, rallying from 18th with three furlongs to go powering past race favorite Epicenter and morning line favorite Zandon. The historic win earned Leon Jockey of the Week honors unanimously by a panel of racing experts for May 2 through May 8. The award honors jockeys who are members of the Jockeys’ Guild, the organization which represents more than 1050 active, retired and permanently disabled jockeys in the United States.
The unlikely story began on Friday morning with Rich Strike sitting at number 21 on the Kentucky Derby Leader Board when Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas scratched Ethereal Road thus allowing Rich Strike into the Kentucky Derby gate. Meanwhile on Friday, Leon rode in five races at his regular base of Belterra Park near Cincinnati. Leon then made his way to Churchill Downs for his only mount of the day on Saturday and his date of him with destiny.
Breaking from post 20, Leon eased Rich Strike off the pace setting toward the back of the pack as they entered the first turn in 18th place. With a record-setting hot pace unfolding, Rich Strike’s placement toward the back of the pack left him with plenty in reserve to make his run for glory. Rich Strike began to pick off his tiring rivals as Leon guided him to the outside then inside for the stretch run. The duo reeled in the leaders catching Epicenter in the final sixteenth to post a shocking three-quarter length win, stopping the clock in 2:02.61 for the classic distance of a mile and one-quarter and a mutuel payoff of $163.20, second largest in Kentucky Derby history behind Donerail in 1913.
“You know we had a difficult post but I know the horse,” said Leon who was riding Rich Strike for the fifth time. I didn’t know if he could win but I had a good feeling with him. I had to wait until the stretch and that’s what I did. I waited and then the rail opened up. I wasn’t nervous, I was excited. Nobody knows my horse like I know my horse.”
Leon, 32, is a native of Venezuela and rides regularly in Ohio at Belterra Park and Mahoning Valley where he has earned multiple riding titles. The Kentucky Derby was Leon’s first graded stakes win. Since coming to the United States in 2015, Leon has won 770 races from 5,176 mounts with purse earnings of more than $15 million.
Other contenders for Jockey of the Week included Jose L. Ortiz with two graded stakes races, Flavien Prat with four graded stakes races, Joel Rosario with two Gr. 1 races, and Luis Saez who won the Gr. I Kentucky Oaks.