CINCINNATI — The Best of Ohio race card was not kind to Sonny Leon. Seven times he had climbed aboard what he thought was a contender only to lose by two or four or six lengths. Leon’s best shot at winning at Belterra Park last Friday was aboard Rumble Strip Ron in the $100,000 Green Carpet Stakes.
Like a certain ride that he took on the first Saturday in May, Leon allowed his colt to lope behind 11 other horses for a mile before giving him his head. Rumble Strip Ron slingshotted around the final turn and whipped past eight rivals in the stretch.
Alas, Leon and his colt finished a neck short of the winner.
“Not my day,” Leon said with a shrug, which was replaced with a smile when his wife, Cryss, and 3-month-old daughter, Paula, leaned in for a hug.
They were not the only ones hanging around the paddock. Twenty-somethings, parents with young children and an older couple with slot machine quarters jingling in a cup circled him. They wanted selfies or programs signed by the winning rider of the 2022 Kentucky Derby.
Leon knew many of their names, as they did his, long before he brought an 80-1 shot named Rich Strike home at the Derby. For six months a year, this racetrack and casino on the banks of the Ohio River is his living room .
“These are my people,” said Leon, a Venezuelan. “This is my home.”
When Leon edges Rich Strike into the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park, the colt will be more a curiosity than a conquering hero. The Derby winner isn’t even the favorite in the Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown, a race known as the Test of the Champion because of its grueling mile-and-a-half distance.
For all but the thoroughbred racing cognoscenti, Leon is the little-known jock from a grits and hard toast circuit who, over two thrilling minutes in Louisville, Ky., threw down a masterpiece of big-time race riding: a swerving, rail- skimming trip worthy of a tear of appreciation from the Mona Lisa.
“It was a thing of beauty, the ride of a lifetime,” said Jeff Perrin, Leon’s agent, an Aussie who, like his rider, was making his Derby debut.
The foundation for that moment was laid at racetracks like Belterra Park, with its oval cut out of a pasture. Its apron is dotted with tables and umbrellas, and populated by the grooms, trainers and owners who have dedicated their lives to horses and by the enthusiasts and retirees who can afford to while away a weekday afternoon.
Thirty yards away is another world altogether. The air-conditioned casino is crowded and the ding, ding, ding of the slots and the avalanches of coin falls call out to the winners and losers alike.
For seven years, Leon, 32, has crisscrossed Ohio and Kentucky and Indiana and West Virginia to ride up to 1,100 races a year at casino racetracks like Belterra, competing before dozens of people, rather than thousands, and spending lonely nights away from his family .
Still, he is very good at what he does. Last year, he won 226 races, the 11th-most in the country.
Flavien Prat, a Frenchman who will ride the Belmont’s 2-1 morning line favorite, We the People, won just 20 more races than Leon last year. Yet Prat, who now rides in New York, earned more than $23 million in purses compared with Leon’s $3 million.
The difference? Better horses, bigger purses.
While Prat has won more than 40 Grade I races, which is the highest level, the Derby was only Leon’s second elite race. Prat averages more than $25,000 per start versus the Leon’s $3,000.
Leon’s victory in the Derby resonated in jockeys’ rooms at minor league tracks everywhere. It was Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson or the Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III.
But no one appreciated it more than Perry Wayne Ouzts, the dean of Belterra Park’s jockey colony. At 67, he has won 7,267 races, placing him fifth on the sport’s career list behind Hall of Famers like Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.
Watching the Derby, Ouzts saw Leon and Rich Strike at the top of the stretch and said he knew Leon was going to run down Prat aboard Zandon and Joel Rosario on Epicenter.
“Those two are future Hall of Famers, but he looked better than them in the saddle and rode a better race,” Ouzts said. “It just goes to show you that just because a guy is riding at a small track, that doesn’t t mean that he does not have any talent. It just means that he’s never had the luck to get on the really good horses or the opportunity to compete in the big races.”
Leon is a self-made horseman. He grew up in La Victoria in the state of Aragua near the Caribbean. He did not know much about racehorses, but he did see young men who looked like him — short and light, with arms that looked like they were pulled through with steel cable — competing on the country’s racetracks.
After attending jockey school, he worked his way up on his home circuit, winning races and admiration for his professional demeanor. There were two riders ahead of him in years who had made a successful transition to America: Javier Castellano and Ramon Domínguez.
“I knew I needed to go to America,” Leon said, “if I wanted to make a profession out of riding.”
In June 2015, Leon landed at Gulfstream Park in Broward County, Fla. The plan was to gallop as many horses in the morning, for as many barns that would pay him, in hopes of catching the eye of an agent. The problem was Gulfstream is Ellis Island for Latin American jockeys who arrive with plans similar to Leon’s.
“No agent would pick up my book,” Leon said. But a couple of trainers gave him rides, and he won enough money to make his way to Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., near the Ohio border.
“I don’t know who told me to go,” Leon said. “I didn’t know anyone here, but I drove 16 hours and found an apartment near the racetrack and went to work.”
Leon quickly established himself as a strong and polished rider, and by 2018, after surpassing more than $1.2 million in earnings, he caught the eye of his agent.
“He was getting better opportunities and growing more confident as a rider,” Perrin said. “Sonny also has a nice way with people and can communicate, and that is really important. A good jockey knows how to tell a trainer what a horse does well, but also what he needs to work on.”
With the move to Perrin, Leon gained access to the trainer Eric Reed, who operates a powerhouse barn that is at once old school and thoroughly modern. His 60-acre farm outside Lexington, Ky., Mercury Equine Center, has stalls for 160 horses , open pastures and a training track five-eighths of a mile long.
In Europe, they call this setup a training yard, and it is considered to have the optimal conditions for allowing a horse to be a horse.
With more than a half-dozen racetracks in four states just a couple of hours away, Reed and Perrin can match horses with the conditions. Leon usually goes with them — in the past 18 months, he has had mounts on 280 of Reed’s horses, winning at a 20 percent clip.
“It is a very team approach,” Reed said. “I can’t tell you how important Sonny was to getting Rich Strike to where he is now.”
Last September, Reed and the horse owner Rick Dawson claimed Rich Strike for $30,000 out of a race at Churchill Downs. The son of Keen Ice was a big strapping colt who was bred to go the classic mile and a quarter. They looked smart the next month when Rich Strike finished third in a mile race at Keeneland in Lexington.
Leon did not ride the colt either of those times. But Reed and Dawson believed their talented colt would benefit from a strong rider who would work with Rich Strike and be true to him. Big-time riders, especially as the Derby approaches, can be fickle and leave you for a higher-profile horse.
Leon rode Rich Strike for the first time in December in the Gun Runner Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. They finished fifth, far back from Epicenter, the colt they ended up running past in the final strides of the Derby.
“He had talent, but he was really green,” Leon said of his colt. “He was still growing up.”
In the spring, the best horses ship to Florida or Arkansas or to Keeneland to earn points to qualify for the Derby. Reed, Dawson and Leon chose, fittingly, a back roads path through Turfway Park. Turfway, with its synthetic racetrack, is attractive for trainers and owners in the winter. The surface is consistent in all weather conditions and therefore considered safer for horses.
In his final prep, the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway on April 2, Rich Strike trailed 10 other horses for three-quarters of a mile before Leon asked the colt to turn on the afterburners and blast alongside the rail. He did, effortlessly, and finished third.
“Now we have a Derby horse,” Leon told Reed.
Rich Strike needed the scratch of Ethereal Road in the final minutes of the Friday deadline to make the field. He needed to break from the 20th post, hang a left to the rail, stick to it like a magnet and run past 14 horses in the final quarter-mile.
The rest is, well, life-changing. Isn’t it, Sonny?
Leon thought hard before answering. He would have 10 mounts at Belterra and one at the Horseshoe Indianapolis on Thursday before arriving in New York on Friday.
“I won the biggest race in America and, yeah, that’s an honor,” Leon said. “But I got to be smart, and I got to be humble. I got to do right by Eric and the team. They have supported me — all the owners and trainers here have given me my life. Maybe I move on in the future, but for now I want to stay in Ohio.”