In May 2022, Sonny Leon surprised the racing community. He immediately took a break after his unexpected victory riding Rich Strike at the Kentucky Derby.
In any other sport, this might not seem like a big deal. Athletes need some time away now and then to reassess their careers. But when it comes to the horse racing world, it’s an entirely different story. From the horse groomers to the trainers and even agents, it’s rare for them to take time off away from the horses. So why did a top jockey disappear for days after the biggest win of his career? And what will it mean for the Ohio sports betting industry in the future?
The jockey nobody had heard of
Diehard fans were surprised to see the press’ definition of Sonny Leon. This Kentucky Derby brought him into the headlines but described him as an “unknown”. A big newspaper such as the Lexington Herald-Leader called the 32-year-old Venezuelan rider “the jockey nobody had heard of”. This is surprising considering his number of achievements over the years.
To start, Leon is well-known to those who attend the Mahoning Valley Race Course around Austintown and Youngstown. That’s because he has won the riding title a few times. Also, those who frequent the Thistledown racetrack in Cincinnati or Belterra Park know Sonny very well. Additionally, he rides at Turfway Park, Florence, Kentucky, where he resides with his family. He also has occasional mounts at Lexington’s prestigious Keeneland meeting.
In 2021 alone, Leon won a record 226 races out of 1,125 mounts throughout his career (a 20% win rate). By the start of Summer In 2022, he’d already won 71 wins. And then, the icing on the cake was his first win in a graded stakes race at the Kentucky Derby. This big feat can’t be ignored and officially put him on the map amongst journalists.
Leon’s time off after his big win was simply a forced vacation. The NTRA suspended him from May 9–12, 2022, for a riding violation on April 28th at North Randall’s Thistledown track. The steward ruled that Leon “deliberately and aggressively steered in toward the rail to block oncoming horses on the outside”. This, therefore, caused interference during the race.
Generally speaking. Sonny got what he deserved. This is a very common penalty in horse racing. When a jockey rides too aggressively or makes other mistakes that affect other riders, they can get suspended for a few days. So many considered Leon’s four-day suspension as “good time” away. Some in his circle actually believed the time off was perfect for him. What better time to take a vacation than right after one of the largest upsets in modern Derby history?
According to his agent Jeff Perrin, Leon “hasn’t had a rest in six months. So I told him, as soon as the Derby is over, go take a vacation. Then it all happened.” And Perrin knows what he’s talking about. He arranges practice races at various racetracks throughout Ohio, and understands the impact of mistakes and aggressive racing.
Leon’s bounce back
Sonny’s riding talent was on full display when he won the Kentucky Derby atop Rich Strick. Leon had to make the right moves with the horse to win. He had to take specific paths through the inside of the field and turn for home at Churchill Downs without any stops in order to win. If it was just about the horse’s speed, Epicenter would have won. Now, all eyes are on Leon to see if he’ll move to a more well-known circuit and offers have been made. After all, it is difficult to pull off such a move. Many have tried and failed.
With his suspension over, Leon was back in Belterra, Cincinnati, where he rode the day before his Kentucky Derby win. At the same time, his agent said there were tons of people calling to offer his client rides at Gulfstream Park every weekend. Perrin said the work they’ve put in over the previous 4 years can’t be overlooked on the the road to a big race like the Kentucky Derby. Sonny spent 6 months riding in Ohio because he already lives in Kentucky, and that’s where most of the important horse races are.