Mike Smith to Ride Five at Fair Grounds Saturday
Jockey Mike Smith has only ridden 13 mounts at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots during a career that spans more than 26 years in the saddle, but his three victories here include a score aboard Daytona in the 2008 edition of the Grade II Fair Grounds Handicap and a win on Concern in the 1995 running of the Grade III New Orleans Handicap. This Saturday the Hall of Famer returns to the Big Easy in an attempt to bolster his already-accomplished resume – and he might just pick up a Kentucky Derby contender as well.
Smith, 45, is best-known for his partnership with 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta – whom he rode to 16 of her 19 straight victories – but he’s had plenty of success with pickup mounts as well. On Thursday he won a Golden Gate allowance event in his first race aboard 2010 Dubai Golden Shaheen winner Kinsale King, the Carl O’ Callaghan trainee who is prepping for a return trip to Dubai this year, and no one will forget his first time on Drosselmeyer, which resulted in a visit to the winner’s circle in the 2010 Belmont Stakes.
It was for the season debut of the Bill Mott trainee that Smith originally booked his ticket to New Orleans, and trainers whose runners were entered on Saturday’s card featuring the Grade II $300,000 Risen Star Stakes were quick to take advantage of his planned presence. When Drosselmeyer spiked the fever that required his abdication from the Grade II $125,000 Mineshaft Handicap, Smith was already lined up to ride Santiva in the Risen Star, Lilacs and Lace in the Grade III $150,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes, and Telling in the Grade III $125,000 Fair Grounds Handicap. He also picked up mounts on two maidens – Saucy Stash in the third for trainer Steve Asmussen and Lookin At Tiger in the 11th for trainer Clark Hanna.
“I haven’t ridden in New Orleans a lot but I’ve won a few races there,” Smith said. “I’ve ridden there enough that I know the track, and as long as I have a good horse and get the trip, that’s what matters. I picked up the 3-year-old colt which was awesome, because you’re always looking for Kentucky Derby horses at this time of year. It’s getting closer so I’m hoping this colt will run well for me tomorrow and keep heading that way. You’re going to see some new potential Derby stars pop up this weekend and hopefully we’re one of them.”
Eddie Kenneally, who assumed training duties when Santiva was transferred from the barn of Todd Pletcher prior to his Nov. 27 score in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, said Smith is the perfect fit for his starter.
“He’s a Hall of Fame rider, a very good stakes rider who has won for me in the past, and he’s one of the best in the business on the big day on the good horses,” Kenneally explained. “It gives me lots of confidence knowing I have a rider like that in the saddle – and, like I said, we’ve had good luck with him before.”
Although Smith has ridden in just 66 races in the first two months of 2011, he’s already earned four graded stakes victories this year including the Grade II Palos Verdes Stakes on Euroears, the Grade II San Fernando Stakes aboard Indian Firewater, the Sunshine Millions Sprint Stakes with Amazombie, and the Kalookan Queen Handicap on Mother Ruth.
“What Mike is trying to do is really zero in on good horses; that’s our main focus,” said agent Brad Pegram. “He’s working toward horses for those races like the Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup, and Dubai, and it’s worked out well that when those horses come open, he’s able to pick up good mounts because of who he is and how he rides. But he’ll also be out there getting on them in the mornings; it’s not like he’s just waiting for something to fall into his lap.”
“The good thing about him,” Kenneally said, “is that he’s still riding very, very well. When he gets those quality mounts, he brings them in just as if he were riding eight or nine a day.”
“I’ve been very blessed in my career to have won a lot of big races,” Smith said. “That kind of helps, having that big race kind of name, or whatever you want to call it. At this point in my career, I feel like I’m riding as good as I ever have, and I’m so happy with the way it’s worked out. I’ve been able to make a great living and even this year, although I haven’t ridden a bunch, I’ve won the right ones.”
While the trip to Fair Grounds will be the California-based jockey’s first out-of-town riding assignment for 2011, he was in Kentucky last Monday and Tuesday on other important business – to visit Zenyatta at Lane’s End Farm.
“She’s doing great, she looks awesome, she’s happy,” he said. “I had a good time and it was good to see her.”
Of the retired racemare’s upcoming breeding to Bernardini, Smith said he stands by his original statement that no one is worthy of the Amazon daughter of Street Cry – but he’ll give his stamp of approval to the arrangement.
“Bernardini is a great young sire who has proven himself really quick, and hopefully we’ll wind up with something good,” he said. “I certainly hope so – and one thing’s for sure: if their foal is half as good as she was, that’ll be good enough.”