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Hovdey: Smith test-drives his Derby Cadillac

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

Mike Smith followed his Derby-Oaks double last Saturday at Santa Anita with a trip to Keeneland on Sunday, where he finished third in the Beaumont Stakes with the California-based filly Uppercut. While there, Smith joined with fellow riders taking phone calls for the nationwide telethon in support of the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, an effort that raised more than $200,000.

“You kind of tried to keep the calls going along, but there were people who wanted to talk,” Smith said. “They wanted tell their stories – a big hit with a horse I rode some place, when they saw Zenyatta, or Songbird.”

Did the colt named Justify ever come up?

“Of course he did,” Smith said. “I told them he pretty much speaks for himself. There’s nothing I have to justify.”

As a catch phrases go, that one works, especially when it comes attached to the 3-year-old of the hour, winner of the Santa Anita Derby in only his third start, and factory-certified replacement part for the statue of Pegasus at Gulfstream Park.

Justify is big and red and fast, with a wide white blaze that looks like part of a highway stripe. After two races aboard the son of Scat Daddy for Bob Baffert and a consortium of owners that reads like the Dow Industrials, Smith is convinced that of all his recent chances for Kentucky Derby glory, this one promises the most. Here’s why:

“He’s still learning how to run,” Smith said Monday, looking back at Justify’s three-length victory over Bolt d’Oro. “But he’s smart. He enjoys it. He’s a thinker in a good way. Some horses think too much and get uptight. He’s more curious, soaking it all up. You know he’s in the moment, but he’s not getting overheated. That speaks a lot to the work done by Bob and his crew, too.

“The first time I rode him, in his second race, he got a little hotter than he did the other day,” Smith continued. “But it was a little muggy that day – it had just rained. Still, it was good to see him much better in the post parade. He was turned on and focused, so I didn’t have to do a whole lot with him to get him warmed up. When you have a horse with that talent with the mind to go with it, you’ve really got something. The special ones seem to have it all.”

Justify seems to have it all, except experience, and the Kentucky Derby is not the kind of race you can rehearse.

“There’s a lot of traffic, the pace is usually gruelling, and you’ve got to run from start to finish,” Smith said. “All of that might not come into play for your horse, but it’s always good to have one that’s been battle-tested.

“He showed me Saturday he’s got the grit for it,” the rider went on. “The best part of the race was the last 200 yards when he really leveled off and started to reach. Usually at that point you’re running on fumes, but he was just starting to get it together.”

Earlier, Justify had opened daylight on the field entering the backstretch. Was that his idea or the rider’s?

“I thought I was going at a very comfortable pace, so I let him open up there to open up the race a little bit,” Smith said. “You take away your horse’s natural talent sometimes by slowing them down too much worrying about the pace. If he’s got that natural talent, why not let him use it? By doing that you turn it into a horse race, not just a sprint for home. Get the competition chasing maybe just a little instead of letting them into the race. And he got more out of it that way, too.”

As for facing a 20-horse Derby field, Smith feels Justify can deal with the crowd.

“He’s so athletic, he can get moving quick,” Smith said. “After he opened up the other day, I let him idle at the half-mile pole, then asked him again on the turn and he picked it right up. That helps in a race like the Kentucky Derby, because the opportunities can open and close so quick. And with his size, I sure wouldn’t want to get in a shoving match with him.”

Smith, a dauntingly fit 52, is the modern go-to jockey for big-money moments, the Kentucky Derby included. His 13th-place finish in the 2017 Derby aboard Louisiana Derby winner Girvin marked Smith’s 23rd ride in America’s most famous horse race, passing Pat Day on the list. If he gets to the gate with Justify, Smith will be only two Derby appearances shy of the all-time leader, Bill Shoemaker.

Showing up with such regularity counts for something, but that’s not really the point of the exercise. Shoemaker won four runnings of the Kentucky Derby, while Smith still languishes with a single triumph aboard the 50-1 shot Giacomo in 2005. In 11 tries since then, the best he’s done is Bodemeister’s second in 2012, one of four runner-up results for Smith.

“We all know how tough the Derby is,” he said. “And we take no one lightly. I’ve gone into the Derby with a horse I thought seriously could win it many times before. But I’m not sure I’ve ever gone in with a horse with this much talent.”

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