Controversy Plagues Lukas Classic

Lukas Classic

It was a helluva race. It’s the kind of race that brings the fans to their feet. HRC is a real fighter. He broke well from the gate and led the field for most of the race. Rich Strike rallied with a late move, showing the type of speed that won him the Derby. He passed Hot Rod Charlie a few strides before the wire and appeared to have the race won, but Hot Rod Charlie surged again in the final moments to win by a nose.

But the excitement over the race didn’t stop in the winner’s circle.

First, Sonny Leon, Rich Strike’s jockey, was suspended for 15 days for his controversial ride. Coming into the home stretch the head-on view of the race shows Leon leaning into Tyler Gaffalione, riding HRC, and appearing to elbow the jockey.

The stewards determined that Leon was guilty of “intentionally attempting to interfere with and impede the progress of a rival by repeatedly making physical contact with another rider in the stretch.”

After the race, Leon claimed his saddle had slipped and he started to lose his balance.

Now, there’s new drama. After photos were published of the race, speculation has been rampant that HRC was wearing front shoes with toe grabs, which are not legal for racing as the small crescent shape beneath the front of the shoe can improve traction and provide an advantage.

Rich Strike’s trainer, Eric Reed, said the colt’s owners are considering filing a protest.

Various experts have weighed in on the shoe, and so far the verdict is . . . inconclusive. Some people think it’s a “rim shoe” with a steel piece at the toe, level with the rest of the aluminum rim, to extend wear. If so, it would be legal.

Hot Rod Charlie’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, released the following statement on his Facebook page Tuesday evening:

“I would like to address the current story and the photo contained in the article that have surfaced since Saturday’s win by Hot Rod Charlie in the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs.

I swear on a stack of Bibles, that none of the horses in our stable wears toe grabs, and have not for years. I am 100% behind the science and studies that show toe grabs heighten the risk of limb injury, which is why we stopped using shoes with toe grabs long ago.

After seeing the photo, I don’t blame Eric Reed for questioning Charlie’s shoes. My only thought is that the photo is a weird reflection or is a result of it being altered.”

Doug O’Neill

How unfortunate that this exiting race, with two gutsy horses fighting all the way to the wire, eyeball to eyeball, are having their achievements overshadowed by the controversy.

3 thoughts on “Controversy Plagues Lukas Classic

  1. What a great race, and, as you note, how sad that Sonny Leone had the need to cheat..and still got beat. It’s not his first suspension, by the way. He’s a dirty player. If I were Rich Strike’s owner/trainer, Leone would never back another horse of mine. Hot Rod Charlie won that race by sheer determination and grit.
    Even I were to believe Leone’s claim that the saddle slipped, the head on photo is pretty damning. It sure in heck looks like he’s intentionally elbowing Gaffalione. As for the claim that HRC’s shoe is toe grab…I don’t know. I honestly can’t say, as I don’t know much about that sort of shoe, but I think the photo is a distortion, nothing more. I can’t even believe it’s been ‘altered’. Any horse that wins a race is urine tested afterwards by track staff. They never take their eyes off the horse, and if it were an illegal shoe, wouldn’t Doug O’Neill want to have it pulled? O’neill’s not a newbie to the game, I doubt very much he’d stoop to such shenanigans.

  2. I forgot to mention…having had a girth loosen on me (admittedly, not at a flat out gallop), one’s first reaction is to try and right oneself by putting all one’s weight in the ‘high’ side of the saddle. In other words, had Leone’s saddle truly slipped, he would instinctively have pushed himself to the right, NOT into Gafflione’s space on the left!

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