He Rode the Grits and Laborious Toast Circuit to Horse Racing Glory
CINCINNATI — The Better of Ohio race card was not form 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 successful 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 in need of 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 youngsters and an older couple with slot machine quarters jingling in a cup circled him. They needed selfies or applications signed by the successful rider of the 2022 Kentucky Derby.
Leon knew lots of their names, as they did his, lengthy earlier than he introduced an 80-1 shot named Wealthy Strike residence on the Derby. For six months a yr, this racetrack and on line casino on the banks of the Ohio River is his lounge.
“These are my folks,” stated Leon, a Venezuelan. “That is my residence.”
Leon, waving to the group after driving at Belterra Park, has put hundreds of miles on his Toyota 4Runner touring the horse racing circuit.Credit score…Maddie McGarvey for The New York Occasions
When Leon edges Wealthy Strike into the beginning gate for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park, the colt shall be extra a curiosity than a conquering hero. The Derby winner isn’t even the favourite within the Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown, a race often called 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 onerous 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, 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 lovers 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, fairly than hundreds, and spending lonely nights away from his household.
Nonetheless, he is superb 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 best stage, 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 all places. 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, inserting him fifth on the game’s profession listing behind Corridor of Famers like Invoice Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.
Watching the Derby, Ouzts noticed Leon and Wealthy Strike on the high 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 doesn’t imply that he doesn’t have any expertise. It simply signifies that he’s by no means had the luck to get on the actually good horses or the chance to compete within the massive 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 — quick and light-weight, with arms that seemed like they have been pulled by with metal cable — competing on the nation’s racetracks.
After attending jockey faculty, he labored his means up on his residence circuit, successful 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 needed 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 may pay him, in hopes of catching the attention of an agent. The issue was Gulfstream is Ellis Island for Latin American jockeys who arrive with plans much like Leon’s.
“No agent would choose up my ebook,” Leon stated. However a few trainers gave him rides, and he gained sufficient cash to make his technique to Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., close to the Ohio border.
“I don’t know who instructed me to go,” Leon stated. “I didn’t 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 robust 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 means with folks and may talk, and that’s actually necessary. A very good jockey is aware of easy methods to inform a coach what a horse does nicely, but additionally 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 style and completely 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 situations 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 situations. Leon often goes with them — up to now 18 months, he has had mounts on 280 of Reed’s horses, successful at a 20 % clip.
“It’s a very workforce strategy,” Reed stated. “I can’t inform you how necessary 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 a giant strapping colt who was bred to go the traditional 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 gifted colt would profit from a robust rider who would work with Wealthy Strike and be true to him. Huge-time riders, particularly because the Derby approaches, could 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 operating 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 enticing for trainers and homeowners within the winter. The floor is constant in all climate situations and subsequently 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’ve got a Derby horse,” Leon instructed Reed.
Wealthy Strike wanted the scratch of Ethereal Highway within the remaining minutes of the Friday deadline to make the sphere. He wanted to interrupt from the twentieth publish, dangle a left to the rail, follow it like a magnet and run previous 14 horses within the remaining quarter-mile.
The remaining is, nicely, life-changing. Isn’t it, Sonny?
Leon thought onerous 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 most important race in America and, yeah, that’s 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 workforce. They’ve supported me — all of the homeowners and trainers right here have given me my life. Perhaps I transfer on sooner or later, however for now I need to keep in Ohio.”
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