Rich Strike's Trainer on Series of Tragedies Leading Up to Kentucky Derby Victory: 'Never Give Up'

Trainer Eric Reed — who, just years ago, lost 23 horses in a stable fire — says he "knew it was possible" Rich Strike and jockey Sonny Leon "could win" Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby, Louisville, United States - 07 May 2022
Eric Reed. Photo: John Sommers II/UPI/Shutterstock

Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike and the horse's trainer clearly know the meaning of perseverance.

Rich Strike and jockey Sonny Leon won the 2022 Derby despite entering the race with 80-1 odds — an unbelievable victory (and one that comes after a series of challenges) that Reed speaks to PEOPLE about in this week's issue.

"Richie was supposed to be a small-time horse, but he won it not by a whisker, but by coming from dead last and outrunning horses the hard way," says Reed. "Miracles happen."

This past weekend's miracle follows several personal tragedies for Reed. Just years before the 2022 Derby, Reed and his staff lost 23 of his 36 horses when lightning sparked a fire in his stable in 2016.

"What we witnessed that night, I wouldn't wish on the worst person in the world," Reed recounts. "We found 13 that had survived, that we had gotten out of the barn, and that was a miracle. But you just think it can't get any worse than that and you want to give up. And there's emotions from anger to hurt to disgust to … emotions you've never felt before."

For more on Reed and the Kentucky Derby, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE.

Trainer Eric Reed plants a kiss on the nose of Rich Strike the morning after the 80-1 longshot won the Kentucky Derby. backside at Churchill Downs. May 8, 2022 Aj4t5376 (Photo by Michael Clevenger and Christopher Granger/Courier Journal / USA Today Network/Sipa USA)
Rich Strike. Michael Clevenger and Christopher Granger/sipa

Things didn't get easier: In 2020, Reed spent nine days in the intensive care unit with COVID-19. "I got very sick, so I'm a little bit lucky to get out of that myself, because I have a kidney disease to begin with," Reed recounts.

Then, after recovering, Reed lost two friends in the past year to cancer and a young grandson in a tragic accident.

"It just seems like it's never going to end," he admits. "And today I'm sitting here, those tragedies are what make today so much better."

The experience, he says, "taught me to never give up" — especially as he watched Rich Strike's win with his 76-year-old father. "It's taught me that dreams do come true.

Reed sees a similar comeback story in Rich Strike: "He's supposed to be a small-time horse. Against all odds, he got to the Derby. Against greater odds, he won the Derby."

Now, Reed tells PEOPLE Rich Strike is ready to get back to training. "He's ready to go back to work, I tell you that. We gave him an extra day off and I think we should have sent him back. He's like 'What are you guys waiting on?' " Reed says.

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