With an “Aw shucks” demeanor that belies an intensely competitive nature, superstar jockey Mike Smith is anxiously awaiting his opportunity to ride Bob Baffert's talented Improbable in the 144th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course on Saturday, May 18.
Following an extensive taped interview with NBC Sports that also included Baffert in Santa Anita's Chandelier Room late Thursday morning, Smith, who won his first Preakness Stakes with Prairie Bayou in 1993 and his second with eventual undefeated Triple Crown Champion Justify last year, was happy to take additional time to address this year's Preakness and more in Santa Anita's East Paddock Gardens area.
QUESTION: You've never ridden Improbable, but you've seen him run a number of times. What are your thoughts about riding him for the first time in the Preakness?
Mike Smith: “I'm extremely excited to get back there, especially to ride this colt. I still think there's talent there that we haven't seen. To be back riding in this year's Preakness, with Bob, (owners) WinStar, all the connections, back together again, it kinda means a little more. We'll see if we can pull it off, he's definitely got the ability to do so.”
He got beat about 3 ½ lengths in the Derby. What about his running style and how do you approach this race with him, based upon what you've seen?
“Depending upon who's actually going to run and where we draw, I could see him running a big race and I could see this playing out with two different scenarios. I've got some ideas about him. Hopefully I can pull a race out of him that he hasn't quite run before. I try to figure out some ways to do that…Instead of just doing the same old thing.”
You're known as “Big Money” Mike, and it's for good reason. You've often said that even very early in your career, you liked the pressure that goes with being in big-race situations. Why?
“When you're in a big race and you're the one to beat, it just kind of takes me to a different level, a different kind of focus. I really like to try to figure out why the horse I'm riding is so good and what makes him so good, and really use those tactics to try and beat the competition. I've been blessed to have pulled it off a few times and we're gonna try again.”
It sure sounds like you believe Improbable has quite a bit of upside over what he's already shown?
“I certainly believe he has better races in him and the fact that Bob's running him back gives me confidence, because he's not running the other two (Game Winner and Roadster). So, this horse must've come out of the race in really good shape. And I'm sure that's why he's running…He should have a really good foundation now and be really, really ready for a race like this.”
As you know, there's been a great deal of controversy surrounding the disqualification of the winner, Maximum Security. You finished mid-pack with Cutting Humor, but what is your take on the incident at the top of the stretch?
“In this situation, I don't think Luis Saez (aboard Maximum Security) was trying to be unsafe. I don't think it was something he did on his own. The horse saw something and went out for whatever reason…Whether he saw something, or somebody hit him from behind, whatever it was, he certainly veered out and it wasn't the rider's fault…The horse took him there.”
Following the race, a good friend of yours, Jon Court, who lodged a claim of foul against Maximum Security, said that he thought all jockeys, regardless of whether they're riding stakes or claiming horses, need to be safety-conscious.
“We all need to understand we're on some extremely delicate and extremely valuable horses and we need to take care of each one of them as best we can. This was just a situation where no one was looking to do anything crazy, it just happened.”
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