It is possible to ride a winning race and lose, just ask Mike Smith about this year’s Triple Crown.
Immediately after the Belmont, Twitter was ablaze with angry Paynter backers screaming that Mikey didn’t hit the horse right handed late and opened the rail for JohnnyV to squeak up the inside.
The question people forget to ask is actually rather simple: did he have the horse to get there?
Smith said he was out of horse at the 16th pole in the Derby. Then he just got nipped in the Preakness and looked the same today in the Belmont. The official word from the post-race press conference with JohnnyV is that Smith came out to intimidate Leparoux on Atigun and didn’t see/feel/hear Union Rags behind him. It still looked like the dark bay colt was running on fumes late.
People forget that it’s the rare jockey in the even rarer moment who can pick a horse up and lift it across the finish line like Laffit Pincay.
When a horse runs out of gas, it becomes the test of will we so often call Heart of A Champion. Zenyatta had it. So did Blind Luck. Creative Cause doesn’t. Smarty Jones did until the Belmont’s final 16th ~ that’s what separates the good horses from the great ones.
So should we blame Mike Smith for not beating a (proverbial) dead horse? No. We should thank him like Baffert did with Bodemeister after the Derby: he ran the best race he could, set the perfect pace, but just ran out of horse ~ and left enough in the tank that he can continue to have a successful career without needing six months off to recover.
This isn’t the same as Julien’s Florida Derby ride on Union Rags: that was ugly all the way around and a case of continually misjudging the space available for your horse. But the way Union Rags came on at the end proved he had the requisite amount of gas in the tank to get the job done if he’d had smooth sailing.
As long as we’re talking about bad rides, let’s talk about an exceptional one: I tweeted when the Belmont field was a half-mile from the wire, that it didn’t matter where Union Rags finished, JohnnyV gave him a perfect ride. Little did I realize that he would squeeze through a hole only Mike Smith would dare to try (see Mr. Commons’ Sir Beaufort if you don’t believe me) and get the win in a race where no one believed he could get the distance.
This Triple Crown has seen Hall of Fame riders Mike Smith and John Velazquez school the younger guys in the room about how to ride big races. With the retirement of Bailey, Stevens, Day, Pincay, and Delahoussaye over the last ten years, the big question became: who would fill their journeyman shoes? I think we now know.
- Molly Jo Rosen