Flashback: Mike Smith wins three straight editions of the Alabama

Flashback: Mike Smith wins three straight editions of the Alabama
Photo: Eclipse Sportswire

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has won more than 200 Grade 1 races during his decorated career, counting legendary runners such as Zenyatta, Justify and Holy Bull among his best mounts. Five of Smith’s top-level wins have come in Saratoga’s historic Alabama Stakes (G1) for 3-year-old fillies, a record for the 1 1/4-mile race that Smith holds with John Velazquez and Jerry Bailey.

Remarkably, Smith’s first three triumphs in the Alabama were achieved in consecutive fashion, and they vividly demonstrated Smith’s skill in piloting all types of runners. Favorites, longshots, front-runners, closers — Smith guided them all to the Saratoga winner’s circle.

Smith’s first success in the Alabama was widely expected. In the midst of 1993, when he won the Eclipse Award for outstanding jockey, Smith partnered with overwhelming 7-10 favorite Sky Beauty, a talented filly who would retire with nine Grade 1 wins to her credit — sufficient to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Sky Beauty entered the Alabama in strong form, having rattled off victories in the Acorn (G1), Mother Goose (G1) and Coaching Club American Oaks (G1) to complete a sweep of the “Triple Tiara.” She already had proven herself over the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Alabama, and bettors anticipated Smith would have little to do except steer Sky Beauty around the track and guide her to the winner’s circle.

In reality, the race was a bit tougher than expected. Trainer Allen Jerkens was concerned Sky Beauty might have been feeling the effects of her busy campaign, and after settling in third place for most of the journey, Sky Beauty had to be urged hard to take command in the homestretch. But when push came to shove, the heart of a champion prevailed, and Sky Beauty forged clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Jerkens was reportedly moved to tears by Sky Beauty’s tenacious victory. “She showed a lot of guts to run the way she did today,” Jerkens told Melissa Hebert of the Glens Falls, N.Y., Post-Star. “It was a really emotional race for me.”

Yet Smith believed Sky Beauty might have been more dominant than her margin of victory implied. “She plays cat and mouse,” Smith explained in a story by Tim Reynolds in The Post-Star. “She just plays with them. When the competition comes, she’s there. In the morning, when there’s no one else on the track, sometimes I’ve got all I can do to get her going. But put a horse with her and whoommp, she’s gone.”

There was decidedly less drama involved with Smith’s second Alabama triumph. As part of another Eclipse Award-winning season, Smith partnered with 1993 Frizette (G1) winner Heavenly Prize, who was looking to bounce back from a winter illness and four straight defeats.

But three of those losses came in sprints, and Heavenly Prize clearly relished the chance to stretch out over 1 1/4 miles at Saratoga. Sent off as the third choice behind heavy favorite and four-time Grade 1 winner Lakeway, Heavenly Prize settled off the pace in the early going, then rallied to the front on the far turn and blasted clear in the homestretch to win by seven widening lengths.

“She really likes to go around two turns,” Smith told the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal. “… We don’t ever take a horse like Lakeway lightly — she’s a good horse — but I knew I had a good horse, too.”

Heavenly Prize’s daylight victory was mildly surprising, but it was nothing compared to the shocker Smith’s executed in the 1995 Alabama. Victory seemed wholly impossible when Smith accepted the mount on 42-1 longshot Pretty Discreet, who had finished fourth in a Saratoga allowance race just two weeks earlier.

But then Smith pushed Pretty Discreet to a clear early advantage over a sloppy track, and the unheralded filly simply forgot to stop. She led by 1 1/2 lengths through a half-mile in :47.42 … by 3 1/2 lengths through six furlongs in 1:11.67 … by half a dozen lengths through a mile in 1:36.60 … and by eight lengths at the finish line, which she reached in the respectable time of 2:02.14 to trigger a massive $87.50 win payoff.

“The way she handled the track was just incredible,” Smith told Josh Barnett of The Post-Star. “She just skipped over the top of it. She never bobbled over it. Not one time. It was pretty slick out there. She’s just an agile little thing and she had the feet to handle it.”

In a way, Smith’s three consecutive wins in the Alabama stand as a snapshot of his career as a whole. No matter the running style, no matter the odds — Smith wins aboard them all.

J. Keeler Johnson is a writer, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. You can follow him on Twitter at @J_Keelerman.

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