“My heart was going to explode with so much joy,” says León, 32, in a telephone interview with AFP from Kentucky, a few days after participating for the first time in this equestrian classic.
He had, in the stands, a special motivation: his one-year-old and two-month-old daughter was there.
“It wasn’t just winning the Kentucky Derby, but having my daughter by my side, among 145,000 people. It was my lucky charm, because it was an almost impossible race to win and I won it,” he says.
One day before the race, León did not know if he would be at the starting line. Rich Strike, calling 80-1, was included on Friday for the Ethereal Road elimination.
“If there was a scracht (withdrawal), the horse could enter. There was that tension all week: if it will enter, if it will not enter… I decided to leave it to God,” he says.
At 9 am Friday, while having breakfast with his family, he received a call from coach Eric Reed.
– Sonny, we’re coming in!
-That we entered the Kentucky Derby!
Rich Strike’s win was the biggest surprise in this race at odds since 1913, when he won Donerail, at 91-1 at odds.
– Legacy “Dream” –
León grew up in Quedrada de Apa, a small village in the state of Aragua (northern Venezuela). There he inherited from his father, who was fond of horse riding, the love for horses.
“My dad wanted to be a jockey, my grandfather didn’t let him because the profession is risky and he got something into his head: when he has my son, if he wants, let him be a jockey (…), that he make the dream come true.” I couldn’t do it,” he says.
“At the age of 16 I went to Ciudad Bolívar (Bolivar state, south), there was a school there, the Rancho Alegre school, and I started,” he continues, recalling a stage in which he met one of his mentors: José Antonio García, old rider known as ‘El Dandy’ in the Venezuelan equestrian world. “He taught me. ‘Put your hands down, put your heels down, do this like this.'”
Already as a professional he ran at La Rinconada, the main racetrack in Venezuela, and since 2015 he lives in the United States.
– “Without looking back” –
He has won more than 750 races, according to Equibase, but he had never had a triumph of such importance as the Kentucky Derby, the first round of the Triple Crown of American horse racing. Preakness Stakes (Baltimore, Maryland), on May 21, and Belmont Stakes (New York), on June 11, are still on the schedule.
Rich Strike will skip the Preakness Stakes for rest in order to make it to the Belmont Stakes in the best possible way.
“The Kentucky Derby is the race every jockey wants to ride. Win it? Wow!” he says.
Only one Venezuelan had done it: Gustavo Ávila in 1971 with the horse Cañonero.
“He went out there in a video on YouTube saying that the race I did was a perfect race,” Leon proudly boasts.
After falling behind the main pack, Rich Strike moved up to take the win with an impressive finisher, displacing favorite Epicenter (4-1).
“I know the horse very well (…). I told myself: ‘I’m going to run it as it has been running and it has been bearing fruit, because it has been improving,'” says León. “Mistakes in the race are easy to make, bad decisions. I didn’t make them.”
León, who received a four-day suspension in Ohio for a previous competition, is not losing his head.
“I have worked very hard for this and more doors are opening (…). The Kentucky Derby is a historic race, the most prestigious in the world we could say, but nothing: it is just another race. You have to go forward without looking behind”.