Mike Smith plans to outsmart Smarty Jones in the Preakness.
Just how the 38-year-old Hall of Fame jockey intends to do that will remain a secret until the gates open for the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown at Pimlico on Saturday.
Smith set the pace with Lion Heart in the Kentucky Derby before the exacting distance of a mile and a quarter and the winning ways of Smarty Jones took their toll in the stretch. But with fewer horses, the prospect of a fast track, the shorter Preakness distance of a mile and three-sixteenths and some surreptitious strategy, Smith hopes to upset the undefeated Smarty Jones and prevent him from becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978.
"First of all, you have to see who’s in the race and what post position you draw," Smith said at Hollywood Park before the Preakness field was definite. "After that you plan your strategy. My horse is naturally quick. That’s just him. That’s his strength, so whatever we do, it won’t vary much from that. I’m not going to take him back to last, not that I could even if I wanted to.
"But I’ve got a few ideas after watching the Derby a few times, things I can try that are different, but I can’t divulge them now to the press for obvious reasons. Sometimes in this sport, a little change can make a big difference."
The post position draw for the Preakness is not a major concern for Smith, who won the Preakness aboard Prairie Bayou in 1993.
"It doesn’t matter if Lion Heart is inside of Smarty Jones," Smith said. "Lion Heart is naturally quicker than he is, unless Smarty Jones is determined to go to the lead, but I wouldn’t see why they’d want to. As easy as I got the lead in the Derby, Lion Heart still ran an unbelievable race and I’ll continue to ride him with a lot of confidence. The Derby fractions were a little quick. I would have liked to have slowed it down a bit more.
"With all that was going on, the rain and the crowd (of 140,000), Lion Heart did jump on it (became excited) the first time through the lane, but after that I got him to settle and he ran a great race. My hat’s off to the winner. At every pole, Stewart Elliott (the jockey of Smarty Jones who was riding in his first Kentucky Derby) was where he wanted to be. I was hoping that wouldn’t be the case, that maybe he and some of the horses would get jostled around or a few guys would move too soon or too late and my horse would have a good, clean trip.
"But everything went according to Elliott’s plan, as it did for us, other than winning. Both horses ran great. He just beat us that day. We have to see if we can turn the tables. The Preakness is shorter and that certainly helps us. Also, I believe my horse is getting better. I know he looks better and that’s usually a good sign. Every race he seems to look better."
The perception that Pimlico, with its sharper turns, is a speed-favoring track, ain’t necessarily so.
"When I won on Prairie Bayou, I came from last place," Smith said. "It depends on how the race sets up. The lane (homestretch) is not as long as Churchill Downs (Pimlico’s is 1,152 feet from the last turn to the finish line, while at Churchill it is more than 82 feet longer at 1,234 Â½ feet). Racing can be funny. You know how many 1-9 shots get beat in this game? It happens. You have to hope your horse runs his race again and my horse usually does. In seven races he has four seconds and three wins, and a lot of those losses we’re so close. He ran a great race in the Derby. Smarty Jones just outran me that day and I’ve got to see if we can turn the tables.
"Smarty Jones didn’t disgrace us by any means and like I said, there are a few new things I’m going to try, and they might work. We’ll see."
Even though Rock Hard Ten will be the steam horse in the Preakness, it looks like deja vu all over again to me, with Smarty Jones, Lion Heart and Imperialism running one-two-three. The major difference will be the smaller payoffs. Make Smarty Jones the 8-5 favorite, Lion Heart 5-2 and Imperialism 6-1. Rock Hard Ten will be the wise guy horse at around 4-1, especially with Gary Stevens coming in from Europe to ride. The rest of the field should be 15-1 and higher.
”¦Bobby Frankel says Smarty Jones can win the Triple Crown. "I think he’s got a good chance," the Hall of Fame trainer told me. "He looks like a very nice horse. He didn’t surprise me (winning the Derby) because I told everybody back there (at Churchill Downs) that him and Lion Heart would finish one-two. After they drew the post positions, I thought they’d set a moderate pace but they went a little quicker than I thought."