He Rode The Grits And Hard Toast Circuit For Horse Racing Glory

November 21, 2022
Sonny Leon

CINCINNATI — Sonny Leon was not pleased with the Best of Ohio race card. He had tried seven times to climb aboard a horse he believed was a contender, only to lose by two, four, or six lengths. Leon had a chance at winning at Belterra Park last week when he rode Rumble Strip Ron in his $100,000 Green Carpet Stakes.

Leon let his colt lope for over a mile behind 11 horses, just like a ride he took on the first Saturday of May. Rumble Strip Ron slingshotted around a final turn and beat eight of his rivals.

Sonny Leon: And his colt came up just short of the winner

Sonny Leon

Leon said, “Not my day,” but then he shrugged. His smile was replaced by a smile as his wife, Crysss, and their 3-month-old daughter Paula leaned in for an embrace.

They weren’t the only ones in the paddock. There were twenty-somethings, parents with children, and an older couple holding quarters from a slot machine. They wanted to take selfies with the winner of the 2022 Kentucky Derby or have their programs signed by him.

Leon knew many of their names long before Rich Strike, an 80-1 horse, arrived at the Derby. This racetrack and casino, located on the banks the Ohio River, was Leon’s living room for six months.

Sonny Leon a Venezuelan, said that “these are my people.” “This is my home.”

The colt will be more of a curiosity than a hero when Leon beats Rich Strike to the Belmont Stakes starting gate at Belmont Park on Saturday. The Derby winner is not the favorite in the Belmont. This race, the third leg of the Triple Crown’s Triple Crown, is known as the Test of the Champion due to its mile-and-a half distance.

Leon, the lesser-known jock from a grits and hard toast circuit, is what most people don’t know. He rode a thrilling two-minute race in Louisville, Ky., and he showed a masterful display of big-time racing riding. It was a rail-skimming, swerving trip that deserves a tear from the Mona Lisa.

“It was a beauty, the ride that a lifetime,” said Jeff Perrin (Leon’s agent), an Aussie who was also making his Derby debut.

Belterra Park was the first racetrack to establish this moment. Its oval was cut from a pasture. The apron is filled with umbrellas and tables, and it is home to the owners, grooms, and trainers of horses, as well as the retirees and enthusiasts who can afford to spend a Sunday afternoon there.

A world of its own lies just thirty yards away. The casino’s air conditioning is full and loud.

Leon, 32 years old, has traveled across Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, and West Virginia for seven years to compete in up to 1,100 races at Belterra casino racetracks. He spends lonely nights without his family and often competes before thousands of people.

He is still very skilled at what he does. He won 226 races last year, which was the 11th most in the country.

Flavien Prat (a Frenchman who will be riding the Belmont’s morning line favorite, We the People), won only 20 more races last year than Leon. Prat’s purses are more than twice that of Leon’s $3million.

What’s the difference? Better horses, bigger purses.

Prat won more than 40 Grade I races. However, the Derby was Leon’s second elite race. Prat’s average start is more than $25,000 compared to Leon’s $3,000.

The joy of Leon’s win in the Derby was felt by jockeys at all minor league tracks. Buster Douglas defeated Mike Tyson, or the Jets beat the Colts at Super Bowl III.

Perry Wayne Ouzts was the jockey colony’s dean at Belterra Park, and he appreciated it more than anyone. He is 67 years old and has won 7,267 races. This places him fifth in the sport’s career rankings, behind Hall of Famers like Bill Shoemaker Jr. and Laffit Pincay Sr.

Ouzts, who was watching the Derby, saw Rich Strike and Leon at the top and said that he knew Leon was going down Prat aboard Zandon on Epicenter.

Ouzts stated that “those two are future Hall of Famers, but he looked better in the saddle and rode better races.” It just shows that even though a man is only able to ride at a small track it doesn’t necessarily mean he lacks talent. He hasn’t had the chance to ride on top horses or compete in big races.

Leon is a self-made horseman. Leon grew up near the Caribbean in La Victoria, the state of Aragua. Although he didn’t know much about racehorses he saw young men similar to him — they were short, light and had arms that looked like they were being pulled through with steel cable — racing on the country’s racetracks.

After attending jockey school he made his way up the home circuit, winning races, and was admired for his professional demeanor. He was surpassed by Javier Castellano, and Ramon Dominguez who made the transition to America successfully.

Sonny Leon: stated, “I knew that I had to go to America if I wanted to make riding a profession.”

Leon arrived at Gulfstream Park, Broward County, Fla. in June 2015. Leon had a plan to ride as many horses as possible for as many barns as possible in order to catch the attention of an agent. Gulfstream was Ellis Island for Latin American jockeys arriving with similar plans to Leon’s.

Leon stated that no agent would take Leon’s book. He was able to get rides from a few trainers and make it to Turfway Park, Florence, Ky., just near the Ohio border.

Leon stated, “I don’t know who told I to go.” “I didn’t know anyone, but I drove 16 miles to find an apartment near the track and went to work.

Leon established himself quickly as a solid and polished rider. In 2018, Leon had earned more than $1.2million and caught the attention of his agent.

Perrin stated that Perrin was seeing him grow and get better opportunities. “Sonny is a good friend and communicates well with others, which is very important.” A good jockey can tell a trainer what a horse does well and what he needs to improve.

Leon was able to access Eric Reed, a trainer who runs a barn that is both old-school and modern with the move to Perrin. Mercury Equine Center is located outside Lexington, Ky. It has 160 horse stalls, open pastures, and a five-eighths mile-long training track.

This is what they call a training yard in Europe. It provides the best conditions for horses to become horses.

Reed and Perrin are able to match horses with conditions at more than half a dozen racetracks located in four states within an hour. Leon is a regular participant — he has ridden on over 280 Reed’s horses in the last 18 months and won at a rate of 20 percent.

Sonny Leon: Reed stated, “It’s a very team approach.” “I cannot tell you how crucial Sonny was in getting Rich Strike where he is today.”

Reed and Rick Dawson, the horse owner, claimed Rich Strike last September at Churchill Downs for $30,000 Keen Ice, the son of Keenice was a tall and powerful colt that was bred for the classic mile. Rich Strike, a Lexington-based miler, finished third.

Leon didn’t ride the colt at those times. Reed and Dawson believed that their colt was a talented horse and would benefit from a strong rider, who would be able to work with Rich Strike while being true to him.

As the Derby draws near, big-time riders can be unpredictable and may leave you wanting a more prominent horse

Sonny Leon rode Rich Strike in December’s Gun Runner Stakes at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds. They came fifth in the Derby, far behind Epicenter, which was the colt that they ran past in the final strides.

Leon said Leon about his colt, “He had talent but he wasn’t really green.” He was still growing up.

The spring sees the top horses move to Florida, Arkansas, or Keeneland to gain points that will allow them to qualify for the Derby. Leon, Dawson, and Reed chose a backroads route through Turfway Park.

Turfway’s synthetic racetrack is a great option for owners and trainers in winter. It is stable in all weather conditions, making it safer for horses.

Rich Strike travelled three-quarters mile with 10 horses in his final prep at the Jeff Ruby Steaks on Turfway on April 2. Leon asked Rich Strike to switch on the afterburners so that he could blast along the rail. He finished third, easily.

Leon said to Reed Now we have the Derby horse

Not quite.

Rich Strike had to scratch Ethereal Road just before the Friday deadline expired in order to qualify for the field. He had to run the last quarter-mile past 14 horses, break from the 20th pole, hang a left to go to the rail, and stick to it like an magnet.

The rest, well, it’s life-changing. Isn’t it, Sonny?

Sonny Leon thought long before answering. Before arriving in New York, he would have 10 mounts at Belterra on Thursday and one at Horseshoe Indianapolis on Friday.

Leon stated, “I won America’s largest race and that’s an honor.” “But I had to be smart and humble. Eric and his team supported me. I have been supported by them all — the owners and trainers have made my life easier. Perhaps I will move on in the near future, but I prefer to remain in Ohio for now.

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