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Jockey Mike Smith at age 51 eyes big money in Breeders’ Cup

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ARCADIA, Calif. — The ride is far from over for Mike Smith, even at age 51.

The jockey known as “Big Money Mike” is poised for another lucrative weekend in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita with live mounts in the $2 million Distaff with the unbeaten Songbird on Friday and in the $6 million Classic on Saturday aboard Travers winner Arrogate.

“These kind of horses are certainly keeping me around,” Smith said. “I’ve been here longer than I ever thought I would be. It’s been incredible. I don’t look back on it too much. I’m looking forward to this weekend. I’m very blessed to have accomplished what I’ve accomplished, but I still want to add to it.”

The Hall of Famer has already won over 5,300 races, and his mounts have earned $279 million in a career that started in New Mexico in 1982. He has won most major North American stakes races, including the 2005 Kentucky Derby with 50-1 shot Giacomo.

But the Breeders’ Cup is where Smith shines. He holds the records for wins (22) and purse earnings ($28.9 million) in the season-ending championships.

A major concession to the passage of time is a selective approach. Smith doesn’t ride as many races as in the past, seeking quality over quantity. He has had only 275 mounts this year heading into Breeders’ Cup weekend, yet he leads all American-based riders in average earnings per race at $26,969.

If the money is down, Smith is there.

When Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert sent Arrogate to the Saratoga for the $1.25 million Travers, he needed a jockey for the gray colt’s first stakes race. Riding the horse for the first time, Smith guided Arrogate to a 13 1/2-length victory in track record time.

“When I reached back and touched him one time, I couldn’t believe how he took off,” Smith said. “I was in awe of what he did.”

Arrogate is the 5-2 second choice in the Classic behind even-money favorite California Chrome.

Songbird, the 6-5 favorite in the Distaff, puts an 11-for-11 record on the line, with Smith in the saddle for every victory.

“She’s probably got to run harder than she’s ever run before, but I think she’s ready to do something like that,” Smith said.

Several years ago, Baffert’s wife, Jill, helped Smith organize his trophy room. With everything polished and presented, son Bode Baffert was awed by the sight.

“Bode looked at all the trophies and said `Daddy, why does Mike Smith have more trophies than you do?”‘ Bob Baffert said. “I told him I’m trying to catch up. I’m a little bit behind.”

So are most jockeys, when it comes to chasing “Big Money Mike.”

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

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NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

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Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.