• BAFFERT HAS HIS GO-TO RIDERS, HEADED BY BEJARANO
• STROKE VICTIM ASCANIO HOPES TO RETURN TO RACES
In victory or defeat, Mike Smith keeps his perspective. The Hall of Fame jockey was
sidelined more than five months with two broken vertebrae and spent time in a body cast after a terrible spill at Saratoga in 1998 that threatened his career, but it never crossed his mind that he wouldn’t make it back.
Positive thinking and a well-balanced emotional state were instrumental in Smith resurrecting his vocation and embellishing his enviable resume that includes a Kentucky Derby victory on a 50-1 shot, mounts on not one, but two females that were voted Horse of the Year, Azeri in 2002 and Zenyatta in 2010, and 15 Breeders’ Cup wins, a record he shares with Jerry Bailey. Last April, Smith became the 25th jockey in racing history to win 5,000 career races when he rode Amazombie to victory in the Potrero Grande Stakes at Santa Anita.
The personable and articulate 47-year-old native of Roswell, New Mexico, has an understated passion about the future. He is not looking over his shoulder at Father Time.
Smith is the regular rider of 2011 Ladies’ Classic winner Royal Delta, who, with a dominating victory in last Saturday’s Grade I Beldame, stamped herself as a strong favorite to win another Breeders’ Cup race when the championship events are run at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 and 3.
Smith also is commander in chief on horseback of 2011 Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion Amazombie, who is expected to take a major step towards a repeat performance on Nov. 3, but first must hurdle Saturday’s Grade I, “Win and You’re In” Santa Anita Sprint Championship.
“The good thing about having been on top before is you know what it takes to get there,” Smith said. “When I was hurt, I was willing to do what it took to get healthy and fit. After that, it’s just about riding well and trying to ride well each and every day, day in and day out. This brings opportunities, and once you get them, you have to make the most of them.
“It’s amazing. All it takes is one good horse to get you back out of debt, out of a hole, out of a slumping career, out of just about anything. Years and years of good horses have gotten men out of a whole lot of trouble. For me, I think it started with Azeri when I first came here after I was injured.”
Smith began riding in Southern California in 2001 and returned in 2007 after spending most of 2005 and 2006 back East. “I was blessed to have ridden some great ones (Stardom Bound, Tiago, Prairie Bayou, Skip Away, Unbridled’s Song, Lure and Holy Bull, to name but a handful) before I got hurt, but the horse that got me back in the limelight was certainly Azeri at the time.
“Then you go from a mare like her and you think, ‘God, will you ever see another one like that?’ and up jumps a monster like Zenyatta, and there you are. That takes you to some great places. I had some really nice opportunities to ride some good horses for the Mosses (Jerry and Ann, owners of Zenyatta) early on, winning the Santa Anita Derby with Tiago and the Kentucky Derby with Giacomo, and then Zenyatta.
“It’s surrounding yourself with the right people, doing the right thing and getting the job done. Good horses take you a long way, that’s pretty much what it is.”
Now the countdown is on for Saturday and Amazombie’s run in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, a race trainer and co-owner Bill Spawr and his partner, Tom Sanford, hope leads to the $1.5 million XpressBet Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
“Amazombie is another horse that kept me going,” said Smith, who has been represented by agent Brad Pegram since 2005. “When you get a chance to ride a great horse like that for a great man like Bill, it’s just wonderful. It’s good for the industry that people like Bill have a good horse and know that he’s doing a good job with it, because he’s worked hard for such a long time. It’s just tremendous.
“That makes it even more fun. I’m looking forward to Saturday. Amazombie looks better than ever. He’s training well and if he goes into the Breeders’ Cup in the right order, he could repeat. He’s that kind of horse.”
The field for the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, which goes as race eight on a 10-race program: Castletown, Edwin Maldonado, 20-1; Amazombie, Mike Smith, 9-5; Coil, Martin Garcia, 4-1; Camp Victory, Joe Talamo, 9-2; Capital Account, David Flores, 3-1; Jimmy Creed, Garrett Gomez, 6-1; and Reneesgotzip, Corey Nakatani, 6-1.
Spawr called an audible on Amazombie’s “two-minute lick” that had been scheduled for this morning and plans instead to do it Friday morning. “It’s just my gut (feeling),” Spawr said. “I just feel more comfortable doing it tomorrow, the day before (the race).
“He’ll go like from the three-eighths pole to the wire, between 40 and 42 or 45 (seconds),” Spawr said. “It’s like an open gallop, just to open his lungs up, is all.”
Spawr shrugged off drawing the two hole. “He doesn’t care,” Spawr said. “As long as he’s in there, that’s what counts. He’s such a professional. Let’s get it on. No excuses.”
‘B’ TEAM (BAFFERT, BEJARANO) ARE ‘A’ TEAM AT SANTA ANITA
Bob Baffert is off and running in pursuit of his 11th Santa Anita training title, which would add to his existing record. The 59-year-old Hall of Fame conditioner, 25 pounds slimmer since suffering a heart attack in Dubai last March, has won six races through the first three days of the 24-day meet that ends on Nov. 4, four in front his closest rivals.
He also leads in stakes-winning horses with three, all of which were ridden by Rafael Bejarano. But that doesn’t mean Baffert keeps all his eggs in one basket.
“He may not fit every horse that I have,” Baffert said of Bejarano, who has few if any
flaws as a rider and thus is always favored to win the crown at any Southern California track at which he chooses to make his permanent venue.
“Martin Garcia is back in there, and we also use (Joe) Talamo,” Baffert said. “They’re young and they ride at a high level day in and day out, and that’s what you need.
“Bejarano rides a lot of favorites, and that creates extra pressure, but at the same time, you become somewhat immune to it and you’re not going to worry about what your odds are. If he gets off one that might get beat, he gets on another one and he can make it up.
“He came off that spill last Friday and ran second in the first race he rode for me, and it was my horse that beat him, but the other horse is a better horse,” Baffert said, speaking of Title Contender and Code West, the one-two finishers in Saturday’s first race.
“His first winner back was Executiveprivilege and he rode her beautifully.”
FORMER FRANKEL AIDE ASCANIO REHABS FROM STROKE
Bobby Frankel and Humberto Ascanio were polar opposites in personality. Frankel was irascible, brash, blunt and confrontational. Ascanio is out of the Dale Carnegie school. Once when a reporter asked Frankel the name of an owner of one of his horses, he barked, “Gann!”
When a reporter lost his cell phone on the Hollywood Park backstretch one morning, Ascanio got up from his seat in the tack room, calmly walked a hundred yards to the nearest security guard, and asked in Spanish if he had seen a cell phone.
A short time later, the reporter had the phone.
Frankel died at the age of 68 on Nov. 16, 2009, leaving his assistant of more than three decades Ascanio to fend for himself. Ascanio, now 65, had modest success with a small string of horses of his own after Frankel’s passing, but has been recovering from a stroke since Dec. 30, 2011. It’s been a long climb back but Ascanio won’t fail for lack of effort.
“I lost movement on the right side of my body, so I had to disband my 12-horse stable,” Ascanio said by phone from his home in Arcadia. “Progress is slow, but I’m doing pretty good now. Thank God it’s not real bad. I’m doing therapy twice a week at my home.
“It’s been tough psychologically, but I’m going to fight it to try and get better. My goal is to get back to training. I miss everybody. I’ve spent all my life at the track and I want to return.”
FINISH LINES: Agent Tom Knust said that Patrick Valenzuela, recovering from knee issues, is scheduled to resume riding this weekend. “He just needed a doctor’s release,” Knust said, “and he couldn’t get it until today. That’s why he’s not riding today. But he’s fine and he’ll be riding Saturday and Sunday.” . . . Simon Callaghan said Slim Shadey “came out of the race (Sunday’s John Henry Turf Championship) really well. He jogged over the track this morning. He’s really sound and we’re probably going to point to the mile and a half (Breeders’ Cup) Turf.” Slim Shadey won the Grade II John Henry in front-running fashion under Garrett Gomez, leading by eight lengths at the three-quarter marker and going on to win the 1 ¼-mile test by 2 ¼ lengths . . . Published reports say Animal Kingdom will return in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Mile with a chance to become the first Kentucky Derby winner to gain Breeders’ Cup glory since Unbridled in 1990 . . . Billy Tripp of Santa Anita’s Mutuel Department reports the sad news that his friend and career horseman Frankie Bamford has died. “He was a lifetime veteran of the racetrack,” Tripp said. “He started galloping horses in the early ‘50s and was very popular at Santa Anita exercising horses for trainers Noble Threewitt, Dickie Chew and Randy Sechrest, to name a few. He passed away in Seattle on Monday. He was 71.”