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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.”

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.