The 148th annual Kentucky Derby was held on May 7 at the Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville. “Derby Day” is a world-famous event — renowned just as much for the fancy hats and outfits as for the race itself. The cultural event this year seemed to evoke the kind of atmosphere that has not been seen on the racetrack since 2019. Due to the pandemic, the race had zero spectators in 2020, and was severely limited in 2021. But, this year, nearly 150,000 people came out to watch the race and drink the iconic mint julep cocktails that are forever linked to the race.

Most folks don’t pay attention to horse races, but the race this year was such a news story due to its surprising finish and unlikely winner. First, the role of sports betting should be noted in the current climate of athletics. In 2021, more and more states legalized sports betting, and more are expected to legalize it following the 2022 elections. Many states are legalizing sports betting for the possibly immense tax revenues, and many sports leagues — which are suffering lower viewership among younger demographics — are encouraging betting as a way to hopefully make the sports-watching process a more interactive experience. One can watch the ad breaks during any sports event nowadays and see that almost half of the commercials are dedicated to some app or another — usually promoted by a celebrity — which facilitates legalized betting on sports events. And, with horse races being arguably the most expected sport to be gambled on, the Kentucky Derby had its fair share of bettors — but perhaps the least number of winners in the event’s history. 

This year’s Kentucky Derby had a record $179 million in the pool, but had a just roughly $500,000 bet on the actual winner of the race — Rich Strike. Rich Strike, a 3-year-old Thoroughbred, was the second-biggest longshot winner of the Derby of all time. The odds of winning for this horse were 80-1, and in Circa Sportsbook, a casino in Las Vegas, the odds were an unheard of 300-1. This horse’s history of racing itself can be noted for less-than-astounding runs, but Rich Strike turned out a miracle on Saturday for any of the people foolish or lucky enough to have bet on him. In the mile and a quarter race on a dirt track, Rich Strike had a usually poor start to the race and, at one point, was all the way in 18th place — approximately 17 full lengths behind the initial leader of the pack. It was only in the final home stretch that Rich Strike finally gained momentum, emerged from the heavy traffic in the middle of the pack and took the lead in the final seconds to eventually seize the victory — to the surprise of almost every spectator watching the race.

The Kentucky Derby is a race where heavy favorites almost always win — Justify, the most recent Derby and Triple Crown winner in 2018, had odds of 3.5 to 1 at the time. With the previous several years being disheartening for so many around the world, an incredible underdog-comeback story taking place in an environment where wealth can be seen all around is something that can perhaps make sports more uplifting in the years to come.

The next major races in the Triple Crown are the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 21, and the Belmont Stakes in New York on June 11. Rich Strike’s odds have increased to 5-1 overnight, but he is still not seen as a favorite, so time will tell how these races unfold.

A version of this article appeared on p.7 of the May 12, 2022 print edition of the Daily Nexus.