'The Horse Is Calmer When Jerry Is Around': Bond Of Trust Between Rich Strike, Groom Jerry Dixon, Jr. - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

‘The Horse Is Calmer When Jerry Is Around’: Bond Of Trust Between Rich Strike, Groom Jerry Dixon, Jr.

Jerry Dixon, Jr. (maroon shirt) and his father, Jerry Dixon, with Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike ahead of the Belmont Stakes

When Rich Strike scored his memorable upset victory in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, he provided his connections with a thrill they will carry for the rest of their lives. But particularly for groom Jerry Dixon, Jr., who perhaps knows “Richie” better than anyone.

As Rich Strike's groom, Dixon, Jr. cares for the horse on a daily basis, with his days starting at 4:30 a.m. and stretching into the evening on Saturday after walking home the Derby winner from his start in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.

Dixon, Jr. has worked on the racetrack for 13 years, the past two of which were spent under trainer Eric Reed. He began grooming for Tommy Short, who is based primarily in Ohio and Indiana before working for Reed.

“I learned a lot of things there of what to do and not to do,” Dixon Jr. said. “I've been trying to take all the information of every horseman I've ran across in my life and try to use it. It's best to be a sponge. You got to soak up knowledge.”

A fourth generation horseman, Dixon, Jr. learned from his father, Jerry Dixon, who established a business out of the Churchill Downs receiving barn through “Dixon, Inc.” – a subcontracting service which saddles and cares for horses when their connections ship in for a race. The elder Dixon, who has known Reed for over three decades, also has been hands on with Rich Strike.

“I was always around horses as a kid. I didn't like it as a kid, couldn't stand the smell,” Dixon, Jr. said. “But it grew on me. When your whole family is in the business, you're learning from them, and you're watching them.”

Both Dixon and Dixon, Jr. recall the ups and downs of Kentucky Derby week, and not knowing whether Rich Strike would draw into the race. Rich Strike drew into the race from the also-eligible list when Ethereal Road scratched.

The elder Dixon specifically remembered observing his son reacting to the good news.

“We were at the barn celebrating,” Dixon said. “I watch my son walk off by himself. He got down on his knees and he thanked God.”

Just to be a part of the Kentucky Derby was emotional for both Dixons. Dixon, Jr. recalls the walkover to the paddock with Rich Strike.

“Once we got to the gap, I felt the horse bow his neck and I thought, 'Ooh he's going to run good today',” Dixon, Jr. said. “All we needed was a chance. But to win it? That was icing on the cake right there. To be in the race was the best experience ever, and then to go out and win it was indescribable.”

So indescribable, that it took Dixon, Jr. some time to believe that he actually witnessed Rich Strike shock the Kentucky Derby field. Dixon, Jr. said it was Rich Strike's jockey Sonny Leon who made him realize it wasn't a dream.

“I didn't think it was real at first. It felt like a dream, like I was out on my feet,” Dixon, Jr. recalled. “I had to ask Sonny, 'Is this real? Did we really just win the Kentucky Derby?' Sonny said, 'Papa, I show you,' He threw a rose, it hit my arm, and that's when I knew.”

In preparing for the Belmont Stakes, Rich Strike is fulfilling a lifelong dream for Dixon, Jr., who said he has always wanted to travel with horses.

“Richie here gave me that chance,” Dixon, Jr. said. “I'm just thankful that the team trusts me enough to be in this position. They say hard work pays off.

“We're working hard to keep the horse at his best,” Dixon, Jr. added. “I love the way he's training here.”

The strong rapport between Rich Strike and Dixon, Jr. has been captured in content across social media, including a video of the groom laying down in the stall next to the Derby winner and gently waking him from his slumber.

“If your animal doesn't trust you, you have nothing,” Dixon, Jr. said. “He lets me do whatever I need to do to make sure he's taken care of. Trust is a big thing.”

Dixon, Jr. spoke high volumes of working for Reed.

“This whole experience has taught me to never give up on yourself,” Dixon, Jr. “But the key thing from Eric has been always pay attention to detail. Never short cut even when you don't feel like doing a certain thing a certain way. Give it your best, always.”

Reed expressed strong gratitude for having Dixon, Jr. in the barn to care for Rich Strike.

“Richie loves Jerry Jr. and Jerry Jr. loves Richie,” Reed said. “When you have good karma in the barn and you got a comfort zone with everyone, everything goes smooth and good things happen. We're all family here and everyone gets along well. But there's a bond between Jerry and Richie that is serious. The horse is calmer when Jerry is around, and he's changed all their lives forever.”

Rich Strike had his final gallop Friday in preparation for the Belmont Stakes. The chestnut Keen Ice colt, owned by RED TR-Racing, galloped 1 1/2 miles clockwise around a fast Big Sandy.

“He galloped nice and easy and relaxed,” said Reed.

Rich Strike has routinely visited the main track via the Belmont paddock almost every morning since arriving last Wednesday. He had his first afternoon trip to the paddock yesterday during the first race and had an uneventful outing, which Reed was thankful for.

“I was so happy,” said Reed. “I was worried that I hadn't trained him as much and that he was going to get to the paddock and be keyed up. Now I know he's level-headed and he's got his game face on. We're where we need to be and the way I wanted it to be. No more adjustments – I think it's up to the race now.”

Rich Strike is expected to walk the shed row on Saturday before the Belmont Stakes and have a quiet day since he handled his paddock schooling well.

“I'm happy as I can be,” said Reed. “He always tells if you if you haven't done enough. I would have had to train him harder today and gone back and schooled him today, but all we have to do now is keep him happy.”

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