Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Mike Smith has never won the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park, but he certainly knows his way around the massive 1½-mile track in Elmont, New York, site of the 140th Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
Among the 42-year-old jockey’s 17 riding titles, seven were earned at Belmont Park, so he is consummately familiar with the storied track where the indomitable Big Brown will attempt to join racing’s immortals by becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first in 30 years, since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes under teenage sensation Steve Cauthen in 1978.
Smith has but one regret: he won’t be riding in the Belmont this year, so he has no chance to win it, not that any of Big Brown’s contemporaries have either, on paper, anyway. Smith did catch a fleeting glimpse of Big Brown in the Derby and Preakness aboard his thoroughly vanquished mount, Gayego. Perhaps that’s why Big Brown’s serious rivals are as scarce as Rosie O’Donnell’s male suitors. Big Brown’s limited foes might adhere to a quote from Woodrow Wilson: "Never murder a man who is in the process of committing suicide."
"He’s very impressive," Smith said, rendering an understated evaluation of Big Brown’s dominance in five career victories won by an average of nearly eight lengths. "He’s beating his competition pretty handily right now. They’re not even challenging him. The only one I can see challenging him is that horse from Japan (Casino Drive), if he’s the real deal."
If he is, he hasn’t caused any palpitations in the non-retrospective heartbeat of Rick Dutrow Jr. The imperturbable trainer is as confident as ever that Big Brown can capture the Triple Crown, despite the presence of unbeaten (two for two) Japanese invader Casino Drive and despite a slight quarter crack in Big Brown’s left front foot that was revealed over the Memorial Day weekend.
A quarter crack, as defined by the American Association of Equine Practitioners (veterinarians), is "a crack between the toe and heel, usually extending into the coronary band." The coronary band is "where the hair meets the hoof." Big Brown’s quarter crack was described as about "five-eighths of an inch long," but caused little or no concern to Dutrow, who had the son of Boundary out on the track last Tuesday, a day after veterinarians went over him with the proverbial fine tooth comb.
Big Brown certainly didn’t beat the strongest crop of 3-year-olds in the Derby and the Preakness. Smith, along with most of racing’s self-appointed experts, readily admits that.
"The best 3-year-olds have kind of gone by the wayside, but he’s beaten everything, and done it easily," said Smith, who also explained why capturing the Triple Crown is so elusive.
"The reason the Belmont is so tough to win is because horses have to run back so quick (three races in five weeks)," Smith said. "Plus there’s always fresh horses running at you. But if he runs like he’s been running, I don’t see anybody beating him in the Belmont."
A Triple Crown winner would create a welcome PR infusion for racing, albeit it be brief. Big Brown could be retired to stud after the Belmont, or he could have two more races: the Travers on Aug. 23 and the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Oct. 25.
"It would be a big shot in the arm for racing if he wins the Triple Crown," Smith said. "Of course, it would be nice if I was the one riding him." That cordiality has been afforded to Kent Desormeaux, who, like Smith, is a resurrected member of racing’s Hall of Fame.
Smith has had his moments, to be sure, winning two Eclipse Awards, Santa Anita’s George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award in 1999, the Mike Venezia Award in 1994, an ESPY as outstanding jockey in 1993, winner of the 2005 Kentucky Derby aboard 50-1 shot Giacomo, and was the regular rider of 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull. Thanks to prominent current stakes mounts like Tiago and the undefeated filly, Zenyatta, among others, Smith doesn’t plan on retiring any time soon.
"I’m extremely happy with the people I’m riding for," he said. "If I stay healthy, I could ride for another seven years."
Meanwhile, Big Brown’s emergence as a household name could not have come at a better time for racing. Anyone who fails to get goose bumps when considering the prospect of a Triple Crown winner with the panache of Big Brown must be oppressed with a dormant spirit
The homestretchMake it Big Brown, Tale of Ekati, Casino Drive and Denis of Cork in the Belmont, and if trainer Rick Dutrow Jr.’s confidence is on target, it’s merely a matter of by how many lengths Big Brown will win.
• Lava Man, winless in his last four races under regular rider Corey Nakatani, will be replaced by Tyler Baze aboard the 7-year-old gelding in Saturday’s Grade I Charlie Whittingham Handicap at 1¼ miles on turf. Word from trainer Doug O’Neill’s barn is that one of Lava Man’s owners initiated the change, citing a need for a more aggressive rider.
If all goes well, Lava Man could seek an unprecedented fourth straight win in the Hollywood Gold Cup on June 28, but he’ll have his hands full with Californian and Santa Anita Handicap winner Heatseeker.