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Mike Smith looking to topple California Chrome – again

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Mike Smith has won just about everything racing can offer.

The richest race ever is the next challenge.

Smith has nearly $300 million in purses so far in his legendary career – and the Hall of Famer could add quite a bit to that on Saturday when he rides Arrogate in the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. It’s a rematch with soon-to-be-retired Horse of the Year California Chrome, who Smith and Arrogate toppled at the Breeders’ Cup Classic in their first and only meeting last fall.

“To get the opportunity to ride a horse of this magnitude in this stage in my career, and then to get to ride one in the richest race in the world, it’s incredible,” Smith said. “I’m just so blessed and so looking forward to it.”

If not for this most unusual and first-of-its-kind race, one where 12 stakeholders put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate, there would be no rematch. But in a sport that still sees most of its attention come around the Triple Crown races that start in May and then the Breeders’ Cup near the end of the year, something like the Pegasus can generate some serious and helpful buzz.

California Chrome was installed as the 6-5 morning-line favorite, just ahead of Arrogate. If those two horses are right, then none of the other 10 starters would figure to come close to either on Saturday.

“To race for this amount of money, it’s crazy,” Smith said. “I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined we would be racing for that. You know, I remember when $500,000 was incredible. This is $12 million. I mean, if you really stop and think about it, it’s an unbelievable opportunity for racing. I hope we make the most of it. I hope we all put on a great show.”

The financial stakes couldn’t be bigger.

That’s usually a good sign when Smith is riding.

At 51, he picks his spots now on when and whom to ride. Nearly half of his mounts last year came in races with purses of $100,000 or more. He was eighth among North American jockeys in earnings last season – the other seven who won more money needed an average of 1,214 starts in 2016, while Smith rode in only 335 races.

His average earnings per start: A staggering $39,857.

For comparison, Eclipse Award winner Javier Castellano’s average earnings per start: $18,918, which is superb – yet less than half of Smith’s figure.

“Mike Smith, he knows what he has to do,” Arrogate trainer Bob Baffert said. “There’s nothing I have to tell him. I don’t give him any instructions.”

Smith has earned the right to be choosy. The best owners and the best trainers want to bring the best horses his way, in large part because he’s shown no signs of slowing down.

He has two personal trainers in his employ, depending on where he is at a given time. He’s usually working out six days a week, still watches everything he eats, and prides himself on how well he’s taken care of his body. He remembers thinking 50 was old. Not anymore, and he’s thinking he can still ride at the top level for at least a few more years.

“I think I’m even in better shape now than I was,” Smith said. “Definitely wiser. I remember when I first started there wasn’t hardly anybody in the jockey’s room that didn’t smoke. Everyone would sit around, cup of coffee and a cigarette, then go out and ride the next race. And training’s hard, but I’ve made it a way of life. If you do that, it’s amazing what you’re capable of.”

He beat California Chrome in the Classic last year, and also found a way to beat him in the San Antonio Invitational in 2015.

Now he’s tasked with doing it again, on another enormous stage.

“I live for this day,” Smith said. “This is what it’s all about for me right now.”

143rd Kentucky Derby is as wide open as ever

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Bob Baffert is sitting out the Kentucky Derby, and not by choice.

Having the four-time Derby-winning trainer without at least one horse in the race for just the second time in 11 years indicates what an unpredictable winter it’s been leading to the start of the Triple Crown.

Baffert’s best horse, Mastery, got hurt after crossing the finish line first in the San Felipe Stakes. None of his other 3-year-olds developed into Derby material. Instead, he’ll aim for the $1 million Kentucky Oaks for fillies on Derby eve.

This year’s road to the 143rd Derby derailed other contenders because of injuries, including now-retired Not This Time, Klimt and Syndergaard.

“The amazing thing of getting a horse to the Derby is keeping him injury free,” said Doug O’Neill, who trained last year’s winner Nyquist.

For the first time in four years, the winner likely won’t be from California.

“It’s as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time. You’re going to have some big odds on whoever the favorite is,” said Dale Romans, who trains Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo. “It could be any horse this race. I don’t think this really means it’s a bad group of horses, I think it’s an even group of horses.”

There’s Classic Empire, who boasts an impressive resume as last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old. He won the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes, his only two starts this year.

His path to Churchill Downs hasn’t been smooth, however. He had a foot abscess and a back issue that prevented him from working out for a while. Twice in recent months, Classic Empire refused to train.

“I’ve never once counted him out. I know a lot of people have,” trainer Mark Casse said. “I feel that ability wise, he is the most talented horse out there right now.”

Casse also trains State of Honor, the Florida Derby runner-up.

Todd Pletcher has four horses set to run May 6 in the 1 \-mile race, with Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming as his leading contender.

Of course, big numbers are nothing new for the New York-based trainer.

He had five runners in 2013 and 2007. Yet for his 45 career starters, Pletcher has never had a Derby favorite. That could change this year with Always Dreaming, who had the fastest time among 35 horses going 5 furlongs at Churchill Downs on Friday.

“He’s got the right style to be really tough,” O’Neill said.

Pletcher’s lone victory came in 2010 with Super Saver. He is set to surpass mentor D. Wayne Lukas (48) for most career starters.

“Our Derby record is not as good as we’d like it to be,” he said. “We’ve had some horses overachieve on their way to getting there and in some cases, underachieve in the race itself.”

Besides Always Dreaming, Pletcher’s other horses are: Battallion Runner, Patch and Tapwrit. He almost had five again, but Malagacy isn’t expected to run.

There’s Girvin, the Louisiana Derby winner in a race against time to mend a crack in his right front hoof. His 32-year-old trainer Joe Sharp, the husband of retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, is doing everything he can to heal the colt in time to saddle his first Derby starter. Girvin had a similar crack earlier in the year and responded quickly to treatment.

“I’m not saying that I think I’m going to win the Derby, but I definitely wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” Sharp said. “He’s always consistent and he’s got the kind of running style that wins big races.”

As usual, a full field of 20 is expected. The final lineup won’t be known until Wednesday, when entries are drawn and post positions assigned.

Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is back with Irish War Cry, the Wood Memorial winner. His sire is Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year who finished third in the 2007 Derby.

Still looking for his first Derby win is Steve Asmussen, who will saddle Hence and Untrapped. The trainer has two starters waiting in the wings, too. Lookin At Lee would be the next horse into the race if there are any defections, while Local Hero is No. 24 in the point standings.

Olympic skier Bode Miller recently bought into his first Derby starter, Fast and Accurate, winner of the Spiral Stakes. For years, Miller has been a guest of his pal Baffert during Derby week, but now he’s got some skin in the race.

For the fifth straight year, the field is determined by points from designated prep races. The top 20 earn a spot in the starting gate.

UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow to run in Kentucky Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow will run in the Kentucky Derby next weekend, giving the Godolphin team a chance to end its 0 for 9 skid in America’s most famous race.

Trainer Saeed bin Suroor said Saturday that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum decided to enter the colt in the May 6 race at Churchill Downs.

The Arabs have been trying to win the Kentucky Derby since 1999. Their best finish was fourth with Frosted in 2015 under American-born trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

Ireland-bred Thunder Snow is sixth on the points list that determines the 20-horse field for the 1 \-mile Derby. His earnings of $1.6 million are the second-highest of any Derby runner.

Thunder Snow won the UAE Derby in March and the UAE 2000 Guineas in February. He was the top 2-year-old in Britain last year, where he ran on turf and won the Group 1 Criterium International.

Bin Suroor says the Kentucky Derby “is a great race and one of the few international contests Sheikh Mohammed and Godolphin have yet to win.”