Out of the Clouds, a Lightning Strike, It’s Rich Strike: Don’t Fret about a Slow Start out of the Gate

It is in being the ‘long shot’ that we grow.

Paul Henken

University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2025

Horse racing enjoys a niche spot in American culture, yet horse racing jargon is commonplace—and seemingly often about competition. Phrases such as, “it’s a two horse race,” “it’s coming down to the wire,” “a blue chip pedigree,” the “favorite,” and the “long shot” automatically convey competition when we hear them throughout our day.

Tomorrow, on May 6th, the 149th Kentucky Derby in Louisville, Kentucky will be watched by millions around the world. Anecdotes and expert assurances about the Derby’s “favorites” will dominate the media coverage, but the Derby’s “long shot” will be standing in the back of the paddocks receiving little-to-no recognition. In last year’s Derby, it was a “long shot” that acted on circumstance and opportunity to upset all the “favorites” and find its way into the Derby’s winner’s circle.

The story of Rich Strike, the “long shot” that won last year’s Derby, has the all the makings of a David & Goliath showdown fit for Hollywood’s silver screen. His trainer’s farm and stables had burned to the ground years prior. His trainer had never taken a horse to the Kentucky Derby during the entirety of his multi-decade career. His jockey had never won a “graded stakes” race, which is the gold standard in measuring performance in horse racing. And what’s more, Rich Strike was never even supposed to run the Derby in the first place, receiving only enough qualifying points to get on the reserve list.

And on that list, Rich Strike wasn’t even the first or second alternate; he only got his chance to run the race after two other horses ahead of him on the reserve list scratched. Rich Strike was at Churchill Downs the day before the race, but his trainer was only minutes away from ordering his one and only hope at horse racing royalty back to his farm in Lexington, Kentucky when his phone started buzzing. Rich Strike was running the Derby.

Rich Strike got off to a slow start when the gates were finally flung open. He assumed the “long shot” position behind nineteen of the world’s finest racehorses.

The truth of the matter is that nearly all of us have found ourselves, at one point or another, in this “long shot” position. It always seems that there are others with seemingly better education, preparation, accolades, networks, and advantages that carry weight in determining where we stand in the depth chart of life. But Rich Strike serves as a testament to how a slow start out of the gate does not matter much when the true question in life is how well you understand yourself, the task at hand, and what it takes to ultimately succeed in the end.

Rich Strike enjoyed this “long shot” position for most of the race, passing only a few horses as the race went along. But when the race headed into the final stretch, Rich Strike came alive. Rich Strike passed one horse, then got stuck behind another, then switched lanes and passed two more, only to get pushed back again.

Setbacks happen. All the time. But setbacks give us time to reflect on ourselves and what we have set out to do. In life, progress actually happens within, when we internalize some truth about the world, when we recognize something inherent within ourselves, or when we come to terms with something we really wish wasn’t true. In reality, it is in being the “long shot” that we grow. Rich Strike, his jockey, and his trainer knew Rich Strike’s talents because their countless setbacks allowed them to reflect on what Rich Strike has that others do not, and how his unique gifts could be leveraged when it mattered most.

Undeterred, steered by his jockey, Rich Strike squeezed his way through a gap in the sea of horses and began weaving around his competitors until finally, with a few hundred yards left, the two “favorites” were the only horses between Rich Strike and the Derby’s winner’s circle.

The funny thing about a “long shot” is that no one pays attention to them until they are in the winner’s circle. Watch the race again and listen to the announcer and crowd as the race thunders down the final stretch. They cheer on the “favorites” to a deafening degree, yet no one takes notice of Rich Strike until he blows past the “favorites” in the final moments of the race. It is often someone or something you pay relatively little attention to that turns out to be the critical piece in succeeding in any opportunity that life throws at you.

Everything seems to be a competition these days. Some seem to have gotten a good start out of the gate; others may have started off slowly. But think: when there are no more horses to pass, who is going to give you those setbacks that teach you how to win the race in the end?

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