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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.”

Baffert hoping Arrogate gives him third Dubai World Cup win

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Having taken over the mantle as the world’s best racehorse from California Chrome, Arrogate will attempt on Saturday to wear another crown that last fitted his illustrious American compatriot, the Dubai World Cup.

All eyes are on the 4-year-old Arrogate, who lost on debut 11 months ago but hasn’t lost since.

He’s won the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup this year to stretch his unbeaten streak to six. In both races, Arrogate defeated Chrome, who won the Dubai World Cup last year at Meydan Racecourse by five lengths despite jockey Victor Espinoza hanging on to a loose saddle for most of it.

Under jockey Mike Smith, Arrogate has forged a winning combination in his last three Group 1 races: Travers Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup.

In Dubai, they have drawn stall nine among 14 contenders, a position which fails to douse the confidence of his trainer Bob Baffert.

“Nine is fine,” said Baffert, who also trained 2015 U.S. Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

“He’s settled in pretty well. As long as he shows up, that’s the key. If he runs his race, we know what he can do.”

Smith was all praise for his mount, ranked the No. 1 racehorse in the world.

“I have been blessed with some really, really good horses, but I am not sure I have ever sit on one like this,” Smith said.

“Everything about him, his disposition, his mechanics, the way he gets over the ground … at times you feel as if you are running downhill instead of a level ground. What amazes me most is when the race is over, it looks as if he did not put much effort into it. His recovery time is so quick.”

Arrogate’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup wins came over 2,000 meters on dirt, the same distance and conditions as the $10 million Dubai World Cup.

Baffert hopes Arrogate can give him a third Dubai World Cup victory after Silver Charm (1998) and Captain Steve (2001).

He suffered a heart attack during his last visit to Dubai in 2012, and watched the World Cup five nights later with stents in two of his blocked arteries. He also watched from even farther afield last year as his other horse, Hoppertunity, finished third behind Chrome and Mike de Kock’s Mubtaahij.

He’s giving Hoppertunity another chance.

“Both my horses are happy and healthy,” Baffert said. “He (Hoppertunity) should be collecting a check again. That is what he does, picks up the pieces in these big races. He reminds me of Pac-Man, he just keeps going. A Dubai World Cup 1-2, that would be something.”

Mubtaahij is also back, although he will start under Christophe Soumillon from the widest of stalls.

“Like everyone, we wanted low,” the Belgian jockey said. “I will have to … hope for some luck.”

The Dubai World Cup features a nine-race card offering $30 million across six Group 1 and three Group 2 races on turf and dirt.

Six three-year-olds nominated late to Triple Crown series

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Thunder Snow, winner of the UAE 2000 Guineas, is among six 3-year-olds made eligible to compete in the Triple Crown series during the late nomination period.

The late nominees, which required a payment of $6,000 each, raise the total nominations to 425 for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. The late nomination period closed Monday. The early nomination window closed in January and required a payment of $600.

Ireland-bred Thunder Snow, owned by Godolphin Racing, is set to run Saturday in the $2 million UAE Derby in Dubai. The colt has three wins in seven career starts for trainer Saeed bin Suroor.

The other late nominees are Hollywood Handsome, trained by Dallas Stewart; More Than Words, trained by Charlie LoPresti; Parlor, trained by Eddie Kenneally; Rapid Dial, trained by Ingrid Mason; and Stretch’s Stone, trained by Bruce Levine.

Thoroughbreds that weren’t nominated to the Triple Crown have one final chance by paying a supplemental fee. The fee for the Derby is $200,000; $150,000 for the Preakness; and $75,000 for the Belmont.