Winning the Kentucky Derby could be career-changing for Sonny Leon, but not right away.
Rich Strike’s jockey is serving a suspension this week, his fifth since September.
Two days after riding an 80-1 shot to victory in America’s most prestigious horse race, the 32-year-old Venezuelan began a four-day suspension for careless riding that will prevent him from competing again until Friday.
According to regulatory rulings compiled by the Association of Racing Commissioners International, this latest penalty is Leon’s third careless riding suspension in the past nine months. He has also been sanctioned for presenting false and altered documents from a physical examination to West Virginia stewards and for inflicting visible injuries on one of his mounts through misuse of the whip.
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The five suspensions total 32 days Leon has or will be sidelined since Sept. 15.
“You do have to be aggressive to win,” jockey agent Jeff Perrin said. “I think there are judgment calls that people make, and I don’t want to comment on it too much for political reasons. But you have to be aggressive.”
Leon’s latest suspension was imposed by stewards at Ohio’s Thistledown following an April 27 incident in which Leon’s filly, One Glamorous Gal, was found to have interfered with Ultra Rays in a $28,000 allowance race, after the rider “deliberately and aggressively steered in towards the rail to block on-coming horses on the inside.”
Jockey Alexander Chavez, aboard Ultra Rays, pushed Leon with his right hand during a bumpy ride in mid-stretch. But while Leon filed an objection, both jockeys were suspended and their mounts disqualified. Ultra Rays had crossed the finish line second; One Glamorous Gal third.
Leon’s suspension was originally set at eight days but was reduced to four because he did not appeal. The specific dates were set so as not to disrupt his existing riding obligations. Like most racing jurisdictions, Ohio rules do not prohibit participation in “designated races” such as the Kentucky Derby when a riding infraction carries a suspension of 10 days or less.
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Perrin said Leon had been offered opportunities to ride at Gulfstream this week but will instead ride seven races Friday at Cincinnati’s Belterra Park before picking up “a little extra business” at Churchill Downs during the weekend.
“We’re still trying to come back to earth,” Perrin said. “I’ve reached out to some of the trainers on the backside that I talked to on Derby weekend. What we’re not going to do is forget the people who helped us get to the Derby.”
Leon has won 71 of his 399 starts this year, but the Derby was the first graded stakes victory of his career.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s put him on the map,” Perrin said. “It’s hard to fathom. Our dream was to draw in and get into the Derby.”
Leon was already the No. 1 rider for Rich Strike’s trainer, Eric Reed, and had ridden all of Reed’s Belterra entries this month prior to his suspension. Reed replaced him with veteran jockey John McKee Tuesday at Belterra, winning one of the races he entered. The total purse for the $18,600 allowance race was equal to 1% of the winner’s share of the Derby purse.
Tim Sullivan: 502-582-4650, email@example.com; Twitter: @TimSullivan714