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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.”

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.