Ohio-Based Jockey Sonny Leon Shocked The World In Kentucky Derby Upset

If Sonny Leon did not make every right move, it wouldn't have been Rich Strike in the winner's circle. It would have been favored Epicenter.
Sonny Leon

After his shocking upset aboard Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby, jockey Sonny Leon immediately went on vacation.

That might make sense through the lens of mainstream sports — “I’m going to Disneyland!” — but that is not normal for a racetracker. Jockeys, agents, trainers, and grooms famously almost never go on vacation. They sometimes rather strangely even brag about it. Caring for horses is a 24/7/365 kind of commitment.

The truth is, Leon, a leading jockey on the Ohio racing circuit, is on a forced vacation. He had a suspension beginning Monday, which ends Thursday, for a riding infraction at North Randall’s Thistledown racetrack April 28. On this date, he “deliberately and aggressively steered in towards the rail to block on-coming horses on the inside” and caused interference, according to the stewards’ ruling.

This is a common sanction in racing. Jockeys gets days for mistakes or riding too aggressively. It just so happens that in this case, it was pretty good timing. What better time for a vacation than the days after you sprung the biggest upset in modern Derby history?

“He hasn’t had a break in six months,” said Leon’s jockey agent, Jeff Perrin, who arranges mounts for the rider at several racetracks in the region. “So I told him, as soon as the Derby is over, go take a vacation. Then it all happened.”

The unknown rider

Some of the headlines about Leon over the last few days have been borderline insulting. Even the Lexington Herald-Leader, smack dab in the middle of horse country, ran a headline that called the 32-year-old rider from Venezuela “the jockey no one had heard of.”

Those who watch the races at Mahoning Valley Race Course on the border of Youngstown and Austintown, where he has won the riding title multiple times, or regulars at Thistledown or Belterra Park in Cincinnati, know exactly who he is. He also rides at Turfway Park in Florence, Kentucky, where he lives, and has occasional mounts at the prestigious Keeneland meet in Lexington.

Leon had a career-high 226 wins from 1,125 mounts last year (a 20% win rate is impressive on any circuit). For this year he already has 71, but the Kentucky Derby was his first graded stakes victory.

And Leon wasn’t just a passenger on Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby. If the rider did not make every right move and take that exact path, through the inside of the field turning for home at Churchill Downs without getting stopped, it wouldn’t have been Rich Strike in the winner’s circle. It would have been favored Epicenter.

But don’t expect the fame to go to Leon’s head. Although the temptation will be there to jump to a more prominent racing circuit, and offers have been extended already, that move is not easy to pull off. Plenty have tried, and many have failed.

Leon is back

So, come Friday, guess where Leon will be? Back in the saddle at Belterra in Cincinnati, where he rode last Friday, the day before his Derby stunner.

“He got a ton of phone calls yesterday, with offers to ride at Gulfstream Park every weekend,” Perrin said. “But we cannot neglect what we’ve done in the last four years to put us in a position to ride in the Derby. We rode in Ohio for six months, and he already lives in Kentucky, where many of the most important races are.”

Perrin said Leon will likely ride more at Churchill Downs this meet, along with days at Belterra and Horseshoe Indianapolis (formerly Indiana Grand). And don’t forget about a trip to Baltimore in a couple of weeks for a run in the Preakness.


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