Archive for Mike Smith

2014 Big Cap Showcased Old Warriors

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Dude the Redeemer

God love the seasoned warriors; the ones who rise up and reclaim glory in stunning fashion when everyone else has begun writing them off.

During the Sochi Winter Olympics, Austrian skier Mario Matt, two months shy of his 35th birthday, handled a tricky slalom course on challenging soft snow to become the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Olympics history. The course was so tough—termed brutal by some—that five of the eight top skiers from the first of two rounds failed to finish the course.

Matt’s experience, talent, and will to win allowed him to shine against some of the world’s most talented and much younger skiers.

“He’s a tremendous competitor, a game-day guy,” said U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick.

Game On Dude gave racing the same type of performance March 8 in one of the most exciting Santa Anita Handicaps (gr. I) seen in many years.

Santa Anita Park is home base for the 7-year-old son of Awesome Again, but the Southern California track has been the site of as much heartbreak as triumph for him. Just four months ago Game On Dude was favored to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) after a sterling run of five consecutive graded stakes victories, including a 73⁄4-length romp in last year’s Big ’Cap. The gelding, however, finished ninth in the Classic, 11 lengths behind winner Mucho Macho Man and nosed-out second Will Take Charge. Game On Dude had been the favorite in the 2012 Classic, also at Santa Anita, and finished 15 lengths back in seventh.

The Dude ended last year with a good second to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap (gr. I), so a strong start this year would have restored the faith of many. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Game On Dude finished fifth in the grade II San Antonio Stakes against much softer competition than he would face in the Big ’Cap. The only other graded stakes winners in the field were Blueskiesnrainbows, who had just won the grade II San Pasqual Stakes, and Willyconker, who had won the grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile Stakes in 2012 but had not won or placed in a stakes all last year.

So the speculation began. Had the Dude lost his edge?

Trainer Bob Baffert took the heat for the San Antonio loss, saying he didn’t have Game On Dude prepared. Then he stewed over the naysayers.
“Bob’s proud of Game On Dude,” said jockey Mike Smith. “He’s like family to him. When you knock him, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of Bob, I guess, like it says in the old country song that Merle Haggard used to sing.”

The Big ’Cap wound up being the perfect stage for redemption: a rematch with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge at Santa Anita along with the top three finishers from the San Antonio—Blingo, Imperative, and American Blend—and grade II winner Hear the Ghost from the always dangerous barn of Jerry Hollendorfer. The doubt hanging over Game On Dude made him the third choice in the field; the first time he had not been the post time favorite in 15 starts.

The Dude was ready, however. Smith took him right to the front and let him roll through sharp fractions of :22.91, :45.39, and 1:09.39, a brisker pace than what unfolded had when Game On Dude ran head-to-head with Blueskiesnrainbows in the San Antonio. Heading into the second turn, the fans got the showdown they’d been hoping for with Mucho Macho Man at Game On Dude’s right shoulder and Will Take Charge just outside of Mucho Macho Man.

“The stars are all aligned,” said track announcer Trevor Denman.

This time the Dude’s talent and will to win were unassailable. Mucho Macho Man faded and Will Take Charge was held at bay by 13⁄4 lengths. The Dude trifecta was priceless: He made history by winning his third Santa Anita Handicap, he broke the stakes record with his final time of 1:58.17, and he struck dumb his critics.

“It’s an emotional win,” Baffert said afterward. “It kills me when they knock on him, but we came in quiet and that’s the way I like it. We came in under the radar, and we were ready for them.”

The Big ’Cap was an important race for the sport as well. A compelling handicap division allows fans to make a connection with top horses and gives a chance for rivalries to develop. Keep putting such compelling contests on TV and perhaps Thoroughbred racing could start to savor some redemption of its own.


Needles’ Jockey Criticizes Mike Smith’s Belmont Ride

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Michael Veitch of The Saratogian…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Veteran rider Dave Erb on Union Rags victory at Belmont

An outstanding rider who circled the field to win the 1956 Belmont Stakes aboard Needles, the 88-year-old youngster today does the same to fellow golfers at Brookhaven.

This I know from personal experience.

I thought it would be instructive to ask him about last weekend’s exciting renewal of “The Test of the Champion,” in which Union Rags rallied along the rail in deep stretch to edge Paynter.

Paynter controlled the pace from the outset of the race at 1 ½ miles.

He was ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who took the blame for allowing his rival enough room to get through.

“Yeah, he did indeed give it away,” said Erb. “When I was coming up, you were always taught to never let anyone through, at any time. Mike Smith was right when he said it was criminal for a man with his experience to do that.”

Jockey John Velazquez, who will join Smith in the Hall of Fame this summer, was aboard Union Rags.

Erb is convinced that Union Rags could not have gotten up in time had Smith shut off the rail.

Belmont Park is a massive track, and its circumference of 1 ½ miles is three-eighths of a mile longer than Saratoga.

Visiting jockeys are often overwhelmed by the size of the famous place.

“Make no mistake, the Belmont is a rider’s race,” said Erb. “A new rider can absolutely be awestruck. When I rode Needles, his owner and trainer had me come to New York a week early and work him the full distance before the race. When I got there, I went up into the stands and counted the poles to try and be familiar with it. Believe me, I was well aware that it was a mile and a half.”

Erb piloted Needles to victories in the Flamingo, Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes that year.

He lost the Preakness by a length and three quarters to Fabius, and turned the tables on that rival in the Belmont.

A confirmed stretch runner as he got older, Needles had won the previous year’s Hopeful Stakes by more than three lengths over Career Boy, who fell a neck short of him in the Belmont.

“Needles really liked Belmont Park and he handled that track just fine,” said Erb.

But there was a hiccup

early in the Belmont Stakes just before leaving the clubhouse turn.

At that time, Belmont Park included the old Widener Chute, which provided for straight races of up to nearly 7 furlongs.

It intersected with the main track on the clubhouse turn, near the point of the backstretch.

“I remember distinctly that when Needles saw the change in the track as he crossed over, he kind of pricked his ears and stuck his toes into the ground for a couple strides,” said Erb.

Needles, who was champion 2-year-old of 1955 and champion 3-year-old of 1956, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2000.

Erb presented the plaque to Scott Dudley and Bonnie Heath III, sons of owners Jackson Dudley and Bonnie M. Heath, respectively.

The skilled hands and quick mind of Dave Erb played an important role in that honor.


Match Races Need to Feature More Than a Marketing Gimmick

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bill Finley of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

A Case for Match Races

Sunday’s “Battle of the Exes” at Del Mar was, yes, a gimmick, hokey and a horrible race to bet on with one horse 3-5 and the other even-money. It was also a lot of fun. Sorry, purists, but I found it to be a lot more entertaining than anything else that happened in horse racing over the weekend.

And it wasn’t just the storyline.

Former lovebirds Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland battled it out on the racetrack with the male jockey admitting he would be humiliated had he lost to his old girlfriend. Smith, riding like it was the Kentucky Derby, won and pumped his first in celebration as his maiden claimer crossed the wire in front of Sutherland’s maiden claimer.

But Smith and Sutherland ride against each other every day, and no one cares. It took the match race aspect to turn their fractured relationship into an entertaining spectacle. That’s because match races are great theater. And this one got me thinking: why can’t racing feature a lot more match races, and not just gimmicks but ones that pit top-class horses?

Match races have given horse racing some of its greatest and most memorable moments. There was Man o’War vs. Sir Barton, Nashua vs. Swaps and Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral in perhaps the greatest match race ever. Harness racing had Bret Hanover vs. Cardigan Bay. The “Pace of the Century” attracted 45,000 to Yonkers Raceway.

There’s nothing more compelling than two great horses going after one another, the outcome proving who’s the better of the two.
Joker Face and Parable, the two maiden claimers that met in the Battle of the Exes, are hardly the stuff of champions. But even pitting those two slowpokes provided the type of intrigue and excitement you never see in a normal race.

Would Smith gun for the lead? (He did). How would Sutherland respond? (She asked her horse for everything in an effort to press Smith’s mount). Would the two match strides in the stretch? (Not really. Joker Face was too good). There were some chess match elements to the race.

(The Del Mar racing office did a good job finding two horses rather close in ability. But shouldn’t Sutherland been assigned a filly? … just to make things all that more interesting).

If matching two maiden claimers could do this, what about two star horses squaring off? How much fun would a Blind Luck vs. Havre de Grace match race be? Or top 3-year-old colt Shackleford vs. top 3-year-old filly It’s Tricky? What if they were ever able to get Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta not just in a race together but in a match race? Why not race 3-year-old filly pacing sensation See You At Peelers head-to-head against one of the top male pacers?

Any one of these events would provide the type of compelling elements that are very hard to find these days in racing, even in some of the sport’s biggest races. A match race is a showdown, a rivalry. They’re Ali/Frazier, Red Sox/Yankees, Michigan/Ohio State, the sort of thing that grabs the attention of the media and public unlike anything else.

In horse racing, we don’t root for our favorite team or horse but for the 4. Twenty-eight minutes or so later, we root for the 6. That’s the primary aspect that separates racing from mainstream sports. Too many of our contests lack any kind of excitement and the outcome matters only for betting purposes.

There hasn’t been a significant match race in 36 years, since Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in 1975. The Ruffian tragedy soured just about everyone on match races and turned conventional wisdom upside down. Because of what happened to the filly it became accepted that they are too dangerous.

Are they? It’s hard to say, but it seems to be reaching to paint match races with such a broad brush because of one tragedy. Unfortunately, horses break down all the time, in all kinds of races, with big fields and small fields, on all surfaces at all distances.

Racing could use some more excitement. It could use some high-profile match races.