Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Will Mike Smith’s Learning Experience Produce Pegasus Upset?

If I were to mix sports metaphors coming out of Monday’s national teleconference sponsored by the NTRA, it would be this: Mike Smith is to Wayne Lukas-speak what Steve Asmussen-speak is to Bill Belichick.

Draw your own conclusions, but this much I do know; Mike Smith, in addition to be one of the greatest money riders the sport has ever known, is a classy, standup individual.

HRI regulars, and several racing-interviews later, fans have read or heard what I thought of Smith’s indifferently lackadaisical effort aboard Collected in the recent Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes.

Collected is a very classy five-year-old chestnut that has compiled a lifetime 8-for-13 slate with accumulated earnings of more than $2.3 million.

Of course, the San Antonio was intended as a prep for Saturday’s world’s richest Pegasus horse race and, as trainer handicapping-speak teaches us, one race is worth many workouts and is easier on the horse over time depending on what remains in the tank.

“I didn’t want [the San Antonio] to be a gutty race—go fast early, hold off the closers, and go fast late,” explained the Hall of Famer and a top finalist to earn a third Eclipse Award riding title Thursday night.

Smith explained the San Antonio further by saying that his rival’s strategy in the small field was to play off whatever he did aboard the 3-10 favorite. “[Collected] fooled me, he turned off, relaxed so quick. When the other riders saw that, they all backed right off.

“Sometimes it’s harder to win in those small fields, everybody knows where everybody else is. I didn’t want to have to make that [big] four-wide move [into contention].”

But even before Smith was asked about his ride in the San Antonio, he admitted that he made a bad tactical decision. In this game, this issue is not exclusive to Mike Smith. It happens at every racetrack every day, every place horse racing is conducted.

In retrospect, I might have been too tough on Smith re the San Antonio. It was, after all, his first ride on the Bob Baffert-trained flyer. Martin Garcia, now riding in New York, was his regular pilot. (Maybe that was one of the reasons why young Garcia shipped east).

Smith will be better for his San Antonio experience. He is/was the regular, highly successful rider of West Coast, with whom he is 3-for-3 and gets along with him so well that he can push buttons at the damnedest times and always getting a favorable result.

When asked of his choice for the Pegasus, Smith explained that he had no choice. “That’s a good question for Bob.

“It wasn’t presented to me as a choice. I’m just happy to be out there on one of them, get him into position, one that you and your horse is happy with.”

Asked to put on his handicapping hat, positing that Collected, Gun Runner and Sharp Azteca all have fair mid-gate draws and break sharply from the gate, he didn’t know which horse might be in front turning into the Gulfstream backstretch.

“These horses are so straight forward and so good you can do anything you want with them,” he said. “If you trained them for speed, they’ll give you speed, they all would be comfortable on the lead.

“If I can get [Collected] comfortable, and I’m comfortable, I can go from there. I can look at how the race is developing, how fast we’re going, then I can think about the decision I have to make next.” As the record shows, Smith makes damn good decisions.

Asked if a longer run-up to the timing pole and official start of the race, routinely 60 feet for nine furlong races at Gulfstream Park, if a longer run-up of say 100 or 120 feet might help mitigate a wide draw. Since 2008, only two horses have won from slip 12.

“A little longer run-up couldn’t hurt, and could help. But for any horse [of this caliber in this race] it would be very difficult from the 10, 11 or 12; not impossible, but very difficult. You’d have to jump out extremely well.”

Smith is a rightful co-favorite for the 2017 Eclipse title, along with Jose Ortiz. Through DEC 10, Ortiz led the country with $27 million in earnings and number of wins, 226. But each had 13 Grade 1 victories with Smith winning 35 graded stakes to Ortiz’s 30.

“Money Mike” might have been a clear cut favorite to win his third Eclipse title had Arrogate been Arrogate after returning from Dubai.

“It’s too bad we had to come back at Del Mar. I’m not sure we saw 70 percent of him there, coming back from Dubai.

“But Gun Runner deserves to be the Horse of the Year. He came back from Dubai and stepped it up a notch. He came back and went unbeaten. You can’t take that away from him.”

So can Smith, in his second ride on Collected, spring the upset and make up the 3-1/2 lengths that separated his Pegasus mount from Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?”

“I know I’m gonna’ ride him a lot different than I did the other day.”

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, January 22, 2018

Written by John Pricci

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