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 the mount on maiden hopeful Saucy Stash in
the third for trainer Steve Asmussen.
“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
“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.”