Many Chapters to Storybook Tale of Gold Strike, Mother of Derby Winner Rich Strike

The Life
Gold Strike, the mother of Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike, at Watershed Equine in May 2022. (William Austin Nicks photo)

Betting the longshot and winning at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve is exhilarating! Especially this year if you bet on the winner Rich Strike (Keen Ice – Gold Strike, by Smart Strike) at odds of 80-1. Indiana horseman William Austin Nicks, 27, hit the trifecta and turned a $24 bet into $14,800! That would make any person happy. However, a series of extraordinary events turned this Kentucky Derby into a life changing race for him!

William Austin Nicks and Becca Hillinger at the 2022 Kentucky Derby. (William Austin Nicks photo)

On Monday before the Derby, he received a call from a friend who had some mares for him. One of the mares given to him was Gold Strike. When Nicks looked up her pedigree, he noticed that her 3-year-old colt Rich Strike was an “also-eligible” contender in the Kentucky Derby. “I got her late Wednesday night.” At that time, he didn’t have plans to go to the Derby.

On Friday, with mere seconds to spare before the deadline, Rich Strike made it into the Derby when Ethereal Road was scratched. Now Nicks scrambled to get a ticket to the Derby. With hope in his heart and his bets placed, he was so excited about the race. Fifteen minutes after the horses left the starting gate, his fiancé, Becca Hellinger, posted a photo of Nicks on Facebook. With one of the iconic Churchill Downs Twin Spires behind him, she titled it “When you own the mom of the long shot that just won the KY Derby.” This was how the racing world met Nicks and his new mare Gold Strike.

Nicks has leased a farm in Sellersburg, Ind., since he was a teenager. “Dad started training around 2005. I started breeding 10 years ago. I was in high school and had to leave early to go to the breeding shed.” Nick’s focus is on Thoroughbred mares. “We foal out all my mares. We also board and raise Thoroughbreds. I will go to Keeneland and buy 20-30 mares every sale. I take pictures, relist them, and sell them.”

Four-year-old William Austin Nicks holding mares in Texas. (William Austin Nicks photo)

A friend of his (Bloodstock agent Tommy Wente) bought Gold Strike at the 2019 Keeneland November breeding stock sale for $1,700.  She wasn’t in foal and did not generate much interest during the sale. Wente purchased her for MC Roberts who kept her for a few years (still without a foal) before he gave her to Nicks.

In Canada, another group of horse folks rejoiced when Gold Strike’s colt won the Derby. Retired Canadian Hall of Fame trainer Reade Baker readily remembered when she was racing for him from 2004-2006. She won the 2005 Sovereign Award for champion 3-year-old filly, and he was honored with the Sovereign Award that year for outstanding trainer. She won the Labatt Woodbine Oaks, the Grade 3 Selene Stakes and the Buffalo Stakes. She also placed third amongst the boys and open competition in the Queen’s Plate Stakes at Woodbine

In all, she raced nine times with four firsts, three seconds, and one third with career earnings of $564,500. Baker remembers her with immense pride. “She was easy to deal with. No problem at all. Didn’t do anything wrong and always wanted to go as fast or slow as you wanted. She’s the kind of horse a trainer really likes.  No headaches. Just talent. Usually, the ones with no headaches have no talent but she was good.”

Lia LeBlanc (Magi) is a public sector lawyer working for the City of Mississauga.  She was Gold Strikes exercise rider. “She was this lanky 2-year-old with long, big ears. She was lovely. She had a beautiful, long, gentle stride where you didn’t feel her hitting the ground. I loved her from the moment I got on her.

Lia LeBlanc (Magi) on Gold Strike 2005. (Woodbine/Michael Burns photo)

“You could just sit there and have the greatest trip of your life. She would dance all the way home. Reade would say, ‘Make that horse walk!’ Her groom Dean and I could not make her walk. It was the slowest little prance I have ever seen. She was so proud of herself. I don’t remember her being fussy or needy. She liked her mints. She liked to get bathed. She was happy-go-lucky and easy to be around.

“She was the best ride I had in my time with Reade. We all knew she was special. She really had so much heart.” 

Canadian jockey James S. “Jim” McAleney also gives high praise for Gold Strike. “She was a great mare. Extremely athletic with a great big frame. She was intelligent and had a ton of class. She had so much natural raw talent. From a jockey perspective, she was beautiful to ride because you knew that you had something underneath you. She conducted herself as an absolute professional.

“I remember the Oaks like it was yesterday. Everything was perfect. I was allowed to ride with a ton of confidence.” They won the race by 3 ½ lengths.

“Reade was one of the greatest trainers that I rode for. We had really good working communications. We would talk about races but, he would let me ride my own race. Riding for Reade was one of the highlights of my career.”

Gold Strike was foaled in 2002. She is by Smart Strike out of Brassy Gold, by Dixieland Brass. She was owned and bred by Richard Bonnycastle in Manitoba, Canada. Bonnycastle’s Harlequin Ranch was named in honor of his family’s publishing empire, which was world renown for their production of romantic fiction. 

Commemorative Woodbine Oaks photo. (Courtesy of Reade Baker)

Gold Strike became a broodmare in Ontario after injuries ended her racing career. She had five foals including a Grade 2 winner Llanarmon, by Sky Mesa.  She was purchased by Calumet Farm for $230,000 at the 2015 Keeneland November breeding stock sale where she was in foal to Sky Mesa.

She was bred to Calumet’s stallion Oxbow in 2016 and Keen Ice (a son of leading sire Curlin) in 2018. Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike is her eighth foal. She has failed to get in foal since then and Calumet sold her in 2019. Nicks said, “When Rich Strike won the Derby, we put her on a trailer and took her back to Lexington.” She has been under the care of a reproductive specialist. “She is a big, good-looking mare; 16.2 hands with dapples all over. She is in great shape. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to try to get her in foal.” 

Nicks sent her to Coolmore and bred her to their stallion Munnings, who is a proven Grade 1 sire. “Munnings had some horses running pretty good lately and it seems like they have been selling well. He’s been getting hotter, so we went with him.” Gold Strike is now based at Tracey and Clay Caudill’s Watershed Equine in Lexington. They are mare care specialists. Nicks says “She is a sweet mare.  An ‘in your pocket’ type who follows you around and is very personable.”

It’s been suggested that the story of Rich Strike’s Derby win could be made into a movie. It should include the amazing story of his dam. Her life story is certainly compelling, having started at the farm named for romantic fiction. She had an award-winning racing career and made it to the proud barns of Kentucky. Not only is her colt Rich Strike now a legendary longshot, but the big, friendly dappled mare’s story isn’t complete. She could most certainly be a hero in an equine Harlequin romance. Time will tell. She is not the only longshot in the family. 

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