NORTH RANDALL, Ohio — Before jockey Sonny Leon was weaving his way from the back of the field to stun the horse racing world at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby he was riding the rails at tracks across Ohio like Thistledown. Landing in the winner’s circle last August for his ride in the Kindergarten Stakes. The website Racing and Sports that track horses and jockeys list the track where he's raced close to 90 times as the site of his first victory three years ago this week.
"If you were looking for a face of racing in Northeast Ohio, specifically here at Thistledown you couldn't ask for a better guy than Sonny Leone,” said longtime Thistledown track announcer Matt Hook.
Hook has gotten to know Leon over the last few years. He says while the rest of the world may have been shocked by what he did Saturday, he wasn't.
“Sonny is one of the hardest working guys that you'll ever come across," he said. “People ask me was I surprised that Sonny Leon won the Kentucky Derby and I said no he's got elite strength, he's an elite tactician, the thing that surprised me was that the horse won, not that he won because I know he's good enough to compete at that level, I just wasn't sure the horse was.”
Still, he said there was that momentary wait, what reaction Saturday.
“It was weird because we didn't know exactly what had happened for the first like five or 10 seconds after the race and we figured it out and it was like jubilation after that.”
Although Leon lives in Kentucky, the track where he has had his most wins, 299 of them, is at Hollywood Mahoning Valley not far away in Austintown. They too were watching Saturday in awe.
"That's Sonny Leon, that's 21, Rich Strike,” said Hollywood Mahoning Valley’s Assistant Director of Racing Elizabeth Rogers. “Oh gosh everybody went crazy, everyone's super excited, a lot of our locals, a lot of our regulars that are familiar with him bet on him to support him so it was a huge day here for us."
The next stop on racing's Triple Crown calendar is the Preakness on May 21 and Belmont on June 11 but the folks in Ohio horse racing are looking two weeks beyond that to June 25 and the half-million-dollar Ohio Derby right here at Thistledown and imagining what a homecoming that would be for Leon.
"I'm sure that he and his agent are taking a long look at the Ohio Derby,” said Hook. "It's a $500,000 race and with the credibility he gained winning the Kentucky Derby I'm sure a phone call or two and they'll be on a very live horse for the Ohio Derby."