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Lexington photographer beats cancer en route to overcoming odds at Kentucky Derby

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Posted at 7:07 PM, Jun 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-07 19:07:41-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — May 7 was the day long-shot Rich Strike struck gold and beat the odds to win the Kentucky Derby.

He wasn't the only one at Churchill Downs with a chip on his shoulder.

Lexington photographer Mike Cyrus says he wants to get his shot more than the horse and jockey wants to win.

"I'm all about weddings," Cyrus says. "Weddings are key. I absolutely love them. I would shoot a wedding seven days a week."

When the first Saturday in May rolls around, he adjusts his focus. Cyrus has shot seven Derbys. Each year, we remember the weather, crowd, twin spires, and the winning horse. Cyrus is about in the right spot at the right time.

"I want this shot," he says. "I'm going to get that shot. I'm not going to fail. Cancer wasn't going to stop me."

Cyrus remembers getting the call from his doctor in August of 2020.

"You've got cancer," he recalled. "It's in your stomach. And it's all the way around the lining of your stomach and this is very serious."

Five months before the 2021 Derby, he beat cancer. He had his entire stomach removed. He still had a couple of chemo treatments, which would overlap with the Derby.

"I cannot tell you the start of the race," he said about Derby Day in 2021. "I can't tell you my thinking. I can't tell you the emotion. I don't remember it. Even though I was in a fog, and I didn't go an hour without puking."

He still got shots of the photo finish. He says he had done better in the past, but his focus was crystal clear.

"When somebody says you have cancer and you may not live, the next time you go back, it's serious," Cyrus said. "And you do it and you take it, you don't take anything for granted. You take it for everything it is."

Now cancer-free in 2022 and approaching Churchill Downs for the 148th running, he teamed up with fellow photographer Dr. Michael Huang.

"Dr. Michael Huang said don't mess this up," Cyrus said with a chuckle. "That was his inspirational speech. He looked at me and goes, 'don't mess this up.'"

"He's just one of the greatest guys, let alone photographers around and I knew he was going to nail it," Huang said. "So I had no problem giving up that spot for him because I knew it was going to be perfect."

This year, little did Cyrus know he would stand on the same renowned track to get the perfect shot, of a long-shot, three-year-old colt, who would go on to shock the world.

"Rich Strike was the one who no one would ever think, it was 80-1 odds or 90-1 odds, some crazy odds," Cyrus said. "I had similar odds and came back and beat that."

A tough fight like cancer, or defying odds at the Kentucky Derby, might feel like an unbeatable battle. Mike, though, has seen a storied, picturesque finish in more ways than one.

"There was so much adversity in front of him," Cyrus said about Rich Strike. "There was so much to stop him from getting to his goal. The same thing, I look at him and I see the same thing. I had so much adversity, so much to push through, but yet, I won at the end. And that's all that matters, is that you win at the end."