The incredible Kentucky Derby comeback story (and it’s not the one you think)

Everybody now knows the improbable tale of Rich Strike, the underdog 80-1 long shot who came straight out of nowhere from the back of the twenty horse pack, bobbing and weaving through traffic and finishing like a bullet train to beat the favorites in the 148th Run for the Roses. The horse, claimed last year for only $30,000, had lost all five of his races since then, and only got into the big race because of a last minute scratch. His small-time local trainer nearly quit after losing over half his horses in a horrific barn fire in 2016, and his relatively unknown jockey had never won a Grade 1 stakes race in his life.

The thrilling finish of the race as taken by my remote cameras.

But you’ve already heard all about it, so I’ve got another inspirational comeback story from this year’s Derby for you.

This is the story of my good friend and photographer Mike Cyrus. Mike is an accomplished photographer who has about a gazillion TikTok followers and anything he posts on Facebook immediately gets 723 likes and 217 comments from his adoring legion of fans. He’s about the nicest and hardest working photographer I’ve ever met. Christopher Michael Images is always booked solid for months with weddings, commercial shoots, portrait sessions and one-on-one and group photography classes. I’ve been blessed to cover the Kentucky Derby with him for the past 6 years as a two-man team for Tops Magazine.

His life changed in 2020 after he started to experience some stomach issues. After undergoing a battery of tests, he received the dreaded news that nobody wants to hear. He had advanced stomach cancer, with a large mass that was invading though the stomach wall. He underwent surgery to remove his entire stomach on December 15, 2020, followed by 4 months of chemotherapy. He actually had his final treatment less than 1 week before the Derby.

And he had a really rough time at Churchill Downs last year. Extremely weak, nauseous, and tired, he actually barely remembers any of it. I felt so sorry for him as he would repeatedly rush to the restroom to throw up. A testament to his resolve and his work ethic, his pictures were still great, as he powered through when he should have been home in bed.

Fast forward one year, and he remains cancer-free and an unbelievable 140 pounds lighter than he was before cancer. He’s been psyched up for shooting the Derby for a year now, knowing that he will be able to give it his best effort.

Not how one generally would like to lose weight by having your stomach removed due to cancer, but the new Mike (half of the old Mike) was ready to capture the best photos at the Derby

It’s pure joy to shoot the Derby for Tops Magazine and founder/CEO Keith Yarber and President Jayme Jackson because they just let us loose to do whatever we can to get the best shots. We are a team, covering as much of the entire spectacle as we can. But since we’re working for a local monthly magazine, and not the Daily Racing Form, AP, Getty or Sports Illustrated, we are not generally granted the access of the major media outlets, so we have to scramble just a little bit harder than the big boys to get the best racing photos. And scramble we did. Mike was everywhere, and here are some of his Derby day photos captured before the actual race.

This looks like a posed photo shoot, but it’s a picture he caught in the paddock before an early race.
He got one of me from across the track. Working hard, or hardly working?
The above photos are all by Mike Cyrus/Tops Magazine

At the Derby, photographers are assigned a spot to shoot the race along the outside rail past the finish line. This year, like every year, we were one of the last outlets to choose which spot we wanted, meaning about 120 photographers got to choose where they would be on the racetrack before we chose our spot. We expected to be about 50 yards past the finish line as we’ve always been. As you can see from my previous photos of American Pharoah and Justify, it’s still a pretty nice vantage point, but it’s not quite like being right on the finish line.

But somehow this year, when it came time to pick our spot, the 6th seat from the finish line had been overlooked and was still open. This would give either Mike or myself the opportunity to catch a truly once in a lifetime photo, the picture of the winner crossing the finish line from directly across the track, not further down at an angle.

We had to decide between us who would take the spot and get the photo. It’s likely we would never have this opportunity ever again, because it was a total fluke that we were able to secure this spot. We decided on Mike. Since I have a bit more experience working the remote cameras on the other side of the track, it just made sense for me to deal with the remotes while giving Mike the awesome responsibility to nail the finish for us. We both knew that he’s just that damn good and he would produce something spectacular. I was confident he could handle the pressure, and my final words to him before the race were, “Don’t screw this up.”

Mike was right on the finish line. Did he nail the shot?

And by the grace of God, Mike was up for the challenge. One year after major surgery and chemotherapy, he caught one of the best pictures I’ve ever seen. Bravo, Mike. Thanks for a truly inspirational comeback Derby story for the ages.

80-1 longshot Rich Strike surges past favorites Epicenter and Zandon to win the 148th Kentucky Derby. Photo by Mike Cyrus, cancer survivor, photographer extraordinaire, and all-aroud great dude.

******2023 Update*******

I wish last year’s Derby experience would have been the happy ending to Mike’s cancer journey, but unfortunately his cancer returned with a vengeance a few months later. He started feeling worse again in August due to malignant ascites, a buildup of cancerous fluid in his abdomen, an ominous sign that generally signals that the prognosis is dismal. Through additional chemotherapy and surgery, Mike has really struggled with pain and fatigue. He has been unable to work, and every day is a struggle. But he remains unbelievably positive, thankful, and hopeful. No matter what it takes, he is planning to shoot the Derby again this year. And I guarantee you he’ll do it, and do it well with the unbridled passion of somebody that knows how blessed he is to be there. If we don’t see you there, we’ll be posting plenty of pictures, so stayed tuned.

Link to help Mike and his family with costs associated with treatment:

Dr. Michael Huang is a full-time physician and part-time photographer, who covered the Kentucky Derby for 8th consecutive year on May 7, 2022. He gave a 37 minute video presentation last year for the University of Kentucky Alumni Association about his experiences as a credentialed photographer, which included a heartfelt story about a memorable photo of American Pharoah as well as his experience of shooting the pandemic Derby of 2020 with no fans.

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