Can Sonny Leon Jockey Win a Rich Strike at Belmont?

CINCINNATI – Ohio’s Best of Ohio race ticket was not pleasant with Sonny Leon. He climbed seven times in his opinion as a competitor to lose two or three longs to the boat. Leon’s best chance to win at Belterra Park last Friday was on the Rumble Strip Ron boat for $ 100,000 in Green Carpet Stakes.

Like a certain ride he did on the first Saturday in May, Leon let his foal ride another 11 horses before turning his head for a mile. Rumble Strip Ron rolled in the final round and outscored eight opponents in the stretch.

Alas, Leon and his foal ended up one neck away from the winner.

“Not my day,” Leon said, shrugging his shoulders as his wife, Cryss, and 3-month-old daughter, Paula, bent over for a hug and replaced him with a smile.

They weren’t the only ones hanging around the paddock. Twenty-one-year-olds, parents with young children, and a quarter of the machine were surrounded by an elderly couple who were dyed in a cup. They wanted selfies or programs signed by the 2022 Kentucky Derby winning cyclist.

Leon knew many of their names, just like his own, before he brought an 80-1 shot called the Derby Rich Strike. For six months a year, this racetrack and casino on the banks of the Ohio River is its living room.

“These are my people,” said Venezuelan Leon. “This is my house.”

As Leon enters the front door of the Belmont Stakes in Belmont Park on Saturday on the edge of Rich Strike, the pony will be more of a curiosity than a conquering hero. The Derby winner is also not a favorite in Belmont, the third crown of the Triple Crown, a race known as the champion test, due to his arduous mile and a half distance.

Except for all the connoisseurs of racing, Leon is an unknown athlete on a toasted and toasted circuit. A journey that deserves a tear in Mona Lisa’s esteem.

“It was a thing of beauty, a lifelong ride,” said Jeff Perrin, Leon’s agent, an Australian who was making his Derby debut as his cyclist.

The foundations for this moment were laid in racetracks like Belterra Park, an oval cut into a meadow. Her apron is packed with tables and umbrellas and is filled with grooms, trainers and owners who have given their lives to the horses and fans and retirees who have the opportunity to spend a weekday evening.

Thirty meters away is another world. The air-conditioned casino is overcrowded and the ding, ding, ding and coin tossing of the slots calls for both winners and losers.

For seven years, 32-year-old Leon has traveled across Ohio and Kentucky and Indiana and West Virginia to compete in 1,100 races a year at casino racetracks like Belterra, competing in front of dozens of people, in front of thousands of people, and spending lonely nights away from his family. .

However, he is very good at what he does. Last year, he won 226 races, the 11th most in the country.

Flavien Prat, the Frenchman who will be Belmont’s 2-1 favorite this morning, won 20 more races last year than We the People. However, Prat, who currently travels to New York, earned more than $ 23 million in bags compared to Leon’s $ 3 million.

The difference? Better horses, bigger bags.

Although Prat has won more than 40 first-class races, which is the highest level, it was only the second elite race in the Leon Derby. Prat has more than $ 25,000 to start with, compared to Leon’s $ 3,000.

Leon’s victory in the Derby resonated in the jockey rooms on the minor league tracks everywhere. It was Buster Douglas who knocked out Mike Tyson or the Jets to win the Colts in Super Bowl III.

But no one appreciated Perry Wayne Oussse more than the dean of the Belterra Park jockey colony. At age 67, he has won 7,267 races, placing fifth on the sports career list, with Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr. after members of the Hall like.

Watching the derby, Usts saw Leon and Rich Strike at the top of the stretch, and he knew Leon would run in the Prat at Zandon and Joel Rosario Epicenter.

“Both of them are members of the Future Hall of Fame, but he looked better in the saddle than they did and he did a better race,” Ouzts said. “It simply came to our notice then. That means he has never had the good fortune to ride a good horse or compete in big races. ”

Leon is a self-made horseman. He grew up in La Victoria, near the Caribbean state of Aragua. He didn’t know much about racehorses, but he did see young men who looked like him — short and light, with arms pulled by steel wires — competing in the country’s racetracks.

After attending jockey school, he climbed his home circuit, winning races and gaining admiration for his professional behavior. He had two successful riders in the years before the successful transition to America: Javier Castellano and Ramon Domínguez.

“I knew I had to go to America,” Leon said, “if I wanted to make a career out of walking.”

In June 2015, Leon landed in Broward County Gulfstream Park, Fla. The plan was to gallop as many horses as he could in the morning, to pay for other stables that would be paid to him, in order to catch the eye of an agent. The problem was that Gulfstream Ellis Island is for Latin American jockeys who arrive with similar plans to Leon.

“An agent wouldn’t take my book,” Leon said. But a couple of trainers gave him rides, and he earned enough money to go to Turfway Park in Florence, near the Ohio border.

“I don’t know who told me to go,” Leon said. “I didn’t know anyone here, but I drove for 16 hours and found an apartment near the racetrack and went to work.”

Leon quickly established himself as a strong and polished cyclist, and by 2018, after earning more than $ 1.2 million, he caught the eye of his agent.

“He was getting better chances and he was gaining more confidence as a cyclist,” Perrin said. “Sonny also has a nice way of being with people and is able to communicate, and that’s very important. A good jockey knows how to tell a coach what a horse does well, but also what he has to do. ”

When he moved to Perrin, Leon gained access to coach Eric Reed, who runs a potential barn that is old-fashioned and completely modern. Outside the Mercury Equine Center in Lexington, Ky., Its 60-acre farm has 160 horse stalls, open pastures and a five-mile five-eighth training track.

In Europe, this configuration is called a training yard, and it is believed that the horse has the optimal conditions to be a horse.

With more than half a dozen racetracks in four states in a couple of hours, Reed and Perrin can match horses with conditions. Leon usually goes with them; in the last 18 months, he has ridden Reed’s 280 horsepower, winning with a 20 percent clip.

“It’s a very team-oriented approach,” Reed said. “I can’t tell you how important it was for Sonny to take Rich Strike to where it is now.”

Last September, Reed and horse owner Rick Dawson asked Rich Strike for $ 30,000 in a Churchill Downs race. Keen Ice’s son was a big belter who grew up doing the classic mile and a quarter. They looked smart next month when Rich Strike finished third in a Keeneland mile race in Lexington.

Leon didn’t ride a pony in those days either. But Reed and Dawson believed that their talented foal would work with Rich Strike and benefit a strong cyclist who would be loyal to him. Great riders, especially as you approach the Derby, can be changeable and leave you on the side of a top horse.

Leon rode Rich Strike for the first time in December at the Gun Runner Stakes at the New Orleans Fair Grounds. They finished fifth, far from the Epicenter, the colt they passed through the final steps of the Derby.

“He had talent, but he was really green,” Leon said of his pot. “It was still growing.”

In the spring, the best horses are sent to Florida or Arkansas or Keeneland to qualify for the Derby. Reed, Dawson, and Leon correctly chose a path along Turfway Park. Turfway, with its synthetic racetrack, is attractive to trainers and owners in the winter. The surface is consistent in all weather conditions and therefore safer for horses.

In his final training at Jeff Ruby Steaks on April 2 at Turfway, Rich Strike chased another 10 horses for three-quarters of a mile before Leon asked the foal to turn on the burners and explode next to the rail. He did it, effortlessly, and finished third.

“Now we have a Derby horse,” Leon told Reedi.

Not completely.

Rich Strike needed a scratch on Ethereal Road to make the pitch in the final minutes of Friday. He had to break the 20th pole, hang the rail on the left, stick it like a magnet and pass over 14 horses in the last quarter of a mile.

The rest, well, it changes lives. Isn’t that right, Sonny?

Leon thought hard before answering. He would have 10 mountains in Belterra and one in Horseshoe Indianapolis on Thursday before arriving in New York.

“I won the biggest race in America and, yes, that’s an honor,” Leon said. “But I had to be smart, and I had to be humble. Eric and the team had to do well. They have helped me, all the owners and coaches here have given me life. Maybe I’ll move on in the future, but I want to stay in Ohio for now. ‘

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