Manitoba mare strikes it rich with Kentucky Derby-winning offspring

When three-year-old colt Rich Strike stunned the horse racing world on Saturday, it sent tremors through the dirt track and empty seats 2,000 kilometres away at Winnipeg's Assiniboia Downs.

'We've never had a horse connected to Manitoba even run in the Derby,' Darren Dunn says

Rich Strike, with Sonny Leon aboard, wins the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs on May 7 in Louisville, Ky. (Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press)

When three-year-old colt Rich Strike stunned the horse racing world on Saturday, it sent tremors through the dirt track and empty seats 2,000 kilometres away at Winnipeg's Assiniboia Downs.

"There was a lot of yelling and screaming — and even that was from people who didn't cash a wager. It was just a lot of pride here in Manitoba," said Darren Dunn, CEO of the Downs, at the city's western edge.

"Beyond excited. Capital OMG in my head, I couldn't believe it. It shocked our world out here and we're thrilled."

Rich Strike is a Manitoban once-removed. His mom is Gold Strike, a thoroughbred mare born in 2002 just southwest of Winnipeg in the tiny community of Brunkild.

"We've never had a horse connected to Manitoba even run in the Derby, so this is as close as it gets. To have the mother of the Kentucky Derby winner, I can't even begin to tell you how rare that is [for Manitoba]," said Dunn.

"It's probably the biggest thing that's ever happened out here to us."

Darren Dunn, CEO Assiniboia Downs, says Gold Strike 'shocked the world and produced an incredible story here for Manitoba' by giving birth to a Kentucky Derby winner. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Among those getting a horse, er hoarse, throat was Assiniboia Downs trainer Blair Miller.

"All racetrack people watch the Kentucky Derby, it's like our Super Bowl. It's the biggest single race of the year," he said.

It was Miller who first tapped into and refined Gold Strike's obvious raw talents while she made an early name for herself at the local track.

"She was just a really classy horse from Day 1, just a real nice, smart filly. We knew she was going to be a good one," he said.

Bred and raced by Harlequin Ranches — owned by Dick Bonnycastle, the former owner and publisher of Harlequin Enterprises — Gold Strike started racing in 2004.

She won two of her three starts at Assiniboia Downs before moving to Canada's big leagues at Woodbine Racetrack just outside of Toronto, where "she really took it to another level," said Dunn.

She won the 2005 Woodbine Oaks — the most important race for three-year-old fillies — then finished third in the Queen's Plate against a field of colts, which are typically bigger and stronger that the average filly.

Gold Strike, mother to Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, seen winning the Buffalo Stakes at Assiniboia Downs in 2004. (Submitted by Darren Dunn)

Gold Strike's performance that year earned her the nod as Canada's champion three-year-old filly and the Canadian Thoroughbred Horse Society's Manitoba-bred horse of the year.

She won $565,000 in her nine-race career (three at Assiniboia Downs and six at Woodbine), according to Jim Lawson, the CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group.

Gold Strike was retired to become a broodmare in 2008 and Rich Strike was born in Kentucky in 2019.

"It's pretty cool to know I trained the mother of a Kentucky Derby winner. Not many people have done that — nobody in Manitoba, that's for sure," Miller said.

"It's just cool to be part of history."

Blair Miller, who trained Gold Strike, says Rich Strike's accomplishment was 'a real fairytale story.' (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

At first, Miller didn't know it was Rich Strike completing the improbable come-from-behind upset victory as an 80-1 long shot.

Watching the televised race, he had the No. 2 horse in a backstretch pool. When Rich Strike, No. 21, made his move, Miller misread the number.

"I see this horse coming and I'm going, that's the two, I might win the pool. And then he went by and I said holy crap, that's the 21, that Gold Strike's baby. So that was pretty exciting," he told CBC, standing in Gold Strike's old stall at Assiniboia Downs.

"It's a real fairytale story for that horse to win that race, it really is. It just doesn't happen."

Rich Strike won with a time of two minutes 2.61 seconds, rewarding those who bet on him to win with a $163.60 payout on $2. It was the second-biggest upset in Kentucky Derby history, behind only Donerail in 1913, who paid $184.90.

During a 15th-to-first surge, and in the final stretch, Rich Strike actually had to decelerate slightly and shift around a slower horse on the inside lane, before kicking past the two front-runners and winning by three-quarters of a length.

Rich Strike (21) beats Epicenter (3) and Zandon (10) at the finish line to win the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby horse race at Churchill Downs. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

"What a rally. To fly up the rail like that horse did, it took your breath away," said Dunn, the track announcer when Gold Strike ran at Assiniboia Downs.

"They call it the fastest two minutes in sports, the most exciting two minutes in sports. And it was for everybody in Manitoba, I can assure you that."

If Rich Strike's finish wasn't unlikely enough, consider the fact he wasn't initially on the race card at all. The field is limited to 20 horses and Rich Strike was listed as number 21, but present at the track in the event another horse was scratched.

The day before the derby, a horse named Ethereal Road was pulled and Rich Strike drew in.

"We were just proud that this horse was in the race and had a Manitoba connection. Not by a mile did we think this horse was going to come out on top," Dunn said. "And that was pretty much that was in sync with the rest of the [horse racing] world, letting it go off at 80-1, the longest shot in the race."

Lawson noted the result was so shocking and sudden that Rich Strike's name wasn't uttered by the race announcers until he was nearly to the finish line.

That name will now be among the first to be mentioned when it comes to monetary worth.

Purchased last fall for $30,000, Rich Strike earned $1.8 million for his Derby win. But his value, for future earnings and breeding purposes beyond that, has gone through the roof.

"Let's just say, today you couldn't come close to buying him for 100 times that … or maybe well north of that," Lawson said, happily crediting that to Rich Strike's Canadian bloodlines.

"We are world leaders in horse racing and when something like this happens, I think there's a little bit of 'I told you we were good in Canada,'" he said.

Triple Crown

Rich Strike is now being treated to a few days of well-deserved R & R before resuming training for the 147th Preakness Stakes on May 21.

It's the second jewel of horse-racing's Triple Crown — the first being the Kentucky Derby and the third being the Belmont Stakes on June 11.

Since 1875, the first year in which all three races existed, only 13 horses have won the Triple Crown.

There were back-to-back Triple Crown winners in 1977 (Seattle Slew) and 1978 (Affirmed) but it would take another 37 years for another horse to accomplish that grand slam. American Pharoah did it in 2015, and the last horse to win all three was Justify in 2018.

Kentucky derby winner has Manitoba roots

5 months ago
Duration 2:27
CBC's Sheila North reports from Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, where Gold Strike, the mother of Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, was trained.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.

With files from Sheila North


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