To a jockey, winning the Kentucky Derby is everything. All the other races are chopped liver.
At one stage in his long and storied career, Laffit Pincay Jr. thought he’d never win the Derby. He lost on his first 11 mounts. Then came Swale in 1984.
The great Pat Day didn’t win until his 10th try, on Lil E. Tee in 1992.
With the 130th Run for the Roses less than two months away, every rider worth his boots is jockeying for position to land a mount on a live 3-year-old.
Mike Smith, Alex Solis and David Flores are no exception. Each presently plying his trade at Santa Anita, their thirst for a Derby is unquenchable as they seek their first victory in the world’s most famous race.
Smith’s best prospect is Lion Heart, whose bloodlines have raised doubt among critics that he can get a mile and a quarter, even though he should benefit from running a game second in Saturday’s San Rafael Stakes at one mile.
"So far, so good," Smith said." But I guess it’s a question for all of them whether they can get a mile and a quarter. He’s given me no indication that he wouldn’t, let’s put it that way."
Smith, 38, is a member of the Hall of Fame and one of the game’s nice guys, not to mention an informative and intelligent interview.
"Winning the Derby is like your World Series or your Super Bowl or whatever it may be," he said. "It’s the one you want to win. You want to retire with that ring. I hope I get there. I haven’t felt any undue pressure building because I haven’t won yet. I still believe there’s one up there for me and I’m just going to keep plugging away. If it’s meant to be it’ll be."
Smith was second aboard Prairie Bayou in 1993. His best chance seemed to be with Holy Bull, the 2-1 favorite in 1994. But the horse never worked up a gallop, plodding home 12th in a field of 14 behind Go For Gin. Smith is still puzzled.
"That was just a mystery," he said. "He was a big favorite that day but he just never was himself. Usually I’d have a lot of trouble with him in the post parade. He was kind of like his name. He was a bull. My main concern was staying on the sonofagun in the post parade. I thought the rest (race) was up to him, just pretty push-button. But that day, I really don’t know. Afterwards his blood was way down. I don’t know what was wrong with him but it wasn’t him. He came back and beat the same horses by 10."
But for Smith the beat goes on. He has ridden in the Kentucky Derby 10 times and the butterflies have pretty much taken wing.
"I’ve finished everywhere but first," he said. "There’s a lot of emotion in the post parade, especially the first few times you ride in it. After that you want to win it. You don’t think too much about it then. You just really focus on wanting to get your first Derby. It’s more of a hunger than an emotion."
The 36-year-old Flores was third on Free House in 1997 and fourth aboard Atswhatimtalknbout last year. His top prospect this year was the maligned 2-year-old champion colt of 2003, Action This Day, who was a fast-closing fourth in the 11/8-mile Sham Stakes in his 3-year-old debut, but who suffered a cut to his right hind leg while finishing seventh in the San Felipe.
"He was a little short (in the Sham)," Flores said.. "Could a horse like this win the Derby? I hope so. That’s every jockey’s dream, to win the Kentucky Derby. To get in the race with a nice horse, that’s what we’re looking for."
Solis, who turns 40 on March 25, has been third in the Derby three times: aboard Captain Bodgit (1997), Victory Gallop (1998) and Aptitude (2000).
"The Derby trophy is one of the last ones I need," Solis said, chuckling. "It’s one of the most incredible races to ride in. I just can’t imagine how it feels to win it. It’s everybody’s dream. Hopefully we’ll get lucky one day and win it.
"It took Pat Day and Laffit a long time to win it. For us, it’s just another goal to accomplish. It keeps me motivated to get up every day and work and try to find a horse that will one day accomplish something incredible like that."
THE HOMESTRETCH: When Southern Image won the Santa Anita Handicap, he became the first horse in the history of the track to win two $1 million races in the same meet, and with victories in the Malibu Stakes ($150,000), the Sunshine Millions Classic ($550,000) and the Big ”˜Cap ($600,000), he surpassed Alysheba’s single-meet earnings mark of $1,175,000 with $1,300,000 . . . This week’s Truth in Training award goes to A.C. Avila, who ended a winless streak of 44 races when Pearl Hunt won at Santa Anita last week under jockey Omar Berrio, who snapped a winless skein of 66 races. Avila (A.C. stands for Antonio Carlos) made no excuses for his drought. "There’s no bad luck in racing," the 50-year-old trainer said. "There’s a good job and a bad job. There’s a good horse and a bad horse. For me, it was not doing a good job with some bad horses."