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Official or not, Zenyatta is Smith’s horse of the year

Nov 4, 2008 4:57 PM

Golden Edge by Ed Golden |

An election that will change the founding values of this nation as we knew it since its inception more than 230 years ago just ended. Next month, voters will decide an issue of far less import: Horse of the Year.

The primary nominees are defending Horse of the Year Curlin and undefeated filly Zenyatta (pictured at right), virtually untested in her nine victories.

The worst finish in Curlin’s 16-race career – fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, coupled with Zenyatta’s smashing win in the Ladies’ Classic – to this point has made Horse of the Year balloting that will be decided next month too close to call.

Mike Smith has a vested interest in the outcome, although the 43-year-old Hall of Fame jockey from Roswell, New Mexico did his best to be objective when asked his thoughts on the matter. Smith has ridden Zenyatta in every race.

"Both horses have the right to be (Horse of the Year)," Smith said. "Zenyatta is perfect this year, and I believe she’s going to run next year, and it would be great for racing to have Horse of the Year run next year."

Whether that influences voters remains to be seen.

"I’m not sure (how voters will respond)," said Smith, the regular rider of 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull and the pilot of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, one of two females to be so honored (Lady’s Secret was the other, in 1986). "Curlin was beaten twice, once on the turf, and again in the Classic. He also did a lot, too. You can’t take that away from him, but you can’t argue with perfection."

During this interview, Smith was calm and cool, as is his wont, but understandably, his heart was pumping during his Breeders’ Cup experience, which included a breath-taking victory in the Juvenile Fillies on 2-year-old filly champion Stardom Bound and a third-place finish on Tiago in the Classic.

"If you can’t get hyped up for the Breeders’ Cup, man, there’s something wrong with you," Smith said. "There was excitement in the air and a lot of good vibes. It was a fun day. It was exciting. I was riding some great fillies and they performed like it. They didn’t just win; they showed dominance. They were brilliant, the way they both ran. It was just an incredible day."

Still, Smith kept his adrenalin under control and took care of business.

"You have a job to do, and on those kinds of days, you focus, even though there’s excitement in the air," he said. "I don’t know. There’s something about a big day like that I just love. I like the pressure."

And he expects to thrive on it for the immediate future, at least, despite overcoming major injuries in the past. He broke two vertebrae in a spill at Saratoga on Aug. 31, 1998 – just two days after guiding Coronado’s Quest to a nose victory over Belmont Stakes winner Victory Gallop in the Travers – and didn’t return until February 1999, after spending time in a body cast.

"I would think I have a whole lot of riding left," Smith said. "I certainly want to ride for a while longer. It’s amazing to get back. In the beginning, it was slow and you wonder if it’s ever going to get back to that point again. Getting an opportunity to ride for the Mosses (owners Jerry and Ann) and John Shirreffs – starting with Giacomo winning the Derby – it’s been an amazing ride.

"John gave me the opportunity to ride for the Mosses. I’d flown out to California a few times way in the past when I was riding in New York before I even got hurt and I was doing well, I wound up riding a horse or two for John and did well, so when I came out to California in 2001, I went to see him and John gave me a big shot. So did Christopher Paasch (trainer of Stardom Bound). I won my 4,000th race for Paasch at Hollywood several years ago (aboard Lift Off on June 17, 2001). I’ve always admired him and I like to think he does the same. He knows I’m going to do the right thing by his horses. I was able to hook up with two big people."

The rest, as they say, is history.

The homestretch

Shug McGaughey reports he has "stopped" on the promising 2-year-old Empire Maker colt Imperial Counsel, who will not run the rest of this year. "His shins were bothering him," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "I’ll have to back off of him till Gulfstream." McGaughey added that Persistently, fifth at 20-1 after a seven-wide rally in the Juvenile Fillies won by Stardom Bound, is turned out in Kentucky for two weeks and will return at Gulfstream, while Dancing Forever, third at 25-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, gets a break until Keeneland opens in spring.

• Anyone considering Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Raven’s Pass as outstanding 3-year-old over Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown is on another planet.

• The on-track attendance at Hollywood Park last Friday: 2,416. That’s two, four, one, six.

• Why do NBA players congratulate teammates with a fist bump when they miss a foul shot?