05/17/2017 10:10AM

Hovdey: ‘Big Money' has been shortchanged at the Preakness

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Barbara D. Livingston
Mike Smith will try for his second Preakness win with Gunnevera, seventh in the Kentucky Derby.

Arrogate won’t be running until the summer. Unique Bella is on the shelf, and Mastery is still recovering from surgery. Songbird is close to a race, though it isn’t certain where or when, and his Derby horse disappeared at Churchill Downs without a trace. What’s a rider to do in the meantime? Twiddle his thumbs? Take up macramé? Tackle his memoirs?

How about win the Preakness?

That would be fine with Mike Smith, the man they call “Big Money,” who has crafted an endgame to a brilliant career that should be the envy of athletes of all shapes and sizes. At 51, with 35 years in the books and close to 33,000 mounts, Smith has become the ultimate gun for hire. Need him to close the deal? He’s that guy over there in black with the business card that reads, “Have Tack – Will Travel.”

Fountain of Youth winner Gunnevera gets the Smith touch on Saturday in the 142nd Preakness, and the Hall of Famer would like nothing more than to shock Always Dreaming, Classic Empire, and the rest of the field in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown.

“We’re not without a chance,” Smith said. “He’s a nice colt, and I’ve had my eye on him for quite a while.”

And his eye on the Preakness since 1984, when his first ride ended in a fifth-place finish aboard Pine Circle. The Preakness holds a special place in Smith’s heart as his first American classic win, accomplished in 1993 with the stretch-running Prairie Bayou.

The ’93 Preakness victory also was the linchpin of Smith’s first of two consecutive national championships. In those seasons, he was riding around 1,500 horses a year, more than he’s ridden in the past three years combined. By the end of this week, Smith still will be shy of 100 rides this year.

Yet there he is atop the purse standings thanks to the $7 million earned by Arrogate in the Pegasus World Cup and the $6 million he won in Dubai. Either of those juicy pots would represent a career year for most riders, but it was Smith who found himself in the right place on the right horse at the right time, which is pretty much how the rider and his agent, Brad Pegram, approach the challenge of marketing a professional athlete of a certain age. Through Tuesday, Smith had just 25 winners this year, 19 of them in stakes events, including three Grade 1s and eight Grade 2s.

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Few riders in history have thrived like Smith with his less-is-more routine. George Woolf did it. So did Eddie Arcaro near the end of his career, as well as Chris McCarron and Jerry Bailey. But it’s a tough act to pull off. Even the best riders lose patience with inactivity. They like winning races almost as much as winning money, and the dwindling lack of action takes its toll.

“Even late in my career, I always had some really nice horses to ride,” said McCarron, who retired in 2002 with 7,141 winners. “That kept me going to the end. But I finally got to a point where my heart wasn’t in it. It’s tough enough riding against guys like Pincay, Delahoussaye, Stevens, and Smith when you’re 100 percent. If you’re 95 percent, you’ve got no shot.”

McCarron noted that Smith currently works with three different trainers, each focused on an aspect of conditioning.

“There is a psychological fitness that works along with physiological fitness,” McCarron said. “Mike has maintained that fitness in both body and mind.”

Smith has been cruising along at his own pace long enough now that the rhythm is ingrained. The last time he rode as many as 600 horses in a season was 2009, the year he and Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. When Smith is not riding his half-dozen horses or so each week, he fills his mornings with intense workout sessions and his idle afternoons with a variety of diversions, not all of which are necessarily uplifting.

“I’m watching a Clint Eastwood movie,” Smith said Monday afternoon, as Preakness week dawned. “It’s called ‘Blood Work.’ ”

Okay, it was a diverting flick, minor Eastwood from his post-“Unforgiven” period. Anything to kill time until Tuesday’s gym session, Thursday’s lone ride at Santa Anita for Richard Mandella, followed by a cross-country flight and a mount for Joe Sharp on Friday in the Allaire duPont Distaff at Pimlico. On Saturday, Smith has rides in three stakes, including the Preakness aboard Gunnevera for trainer Antonio Sano. Horse and rider have never met before.

“It never hurts to have ridden a horse before a big race,” Smith said. “But I’ve had a lot of success when I haven’t. I almost prefer it that way sometimes. You don’t go in with a lot of preconceived notions and just ride the race as it comes to you.”

Although it holds a special place in Smith’s heart, because Prairie Bayou was a special horse, the Preakness has not been the rider’s lucky charm. Since his win in 1993, Smith has added the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo and a brace of Belmonts with Drosselmeyer in 2010 and Palace Malice in 2013, but no Preakness.

Gunnevera, seventh in the Derby under Javier Castellano, will be Smith’s 16th Preakness ride since 1984, a total that puts him third on the list to Gary Stevens and Pat Day. A length or two here and there, and Smith could have been challenging Arcaro’s record of six victories in the classic, or at least Day’s five.

In 2002, Kentucky Derby runner-up Proud Citizen ran his race again for Smith at Pimlico and was lapped on War Emblem and longshot Magic Weisner at the finish.

In 2009, Smith picked up the mount on Derby winner Mine That Bird when Calvin Borel opted to ride Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness. Borel got it right, but Smith only missed by a length.

In 2010, Smith and the scrappy Jackson Bend were 12th in the Derby, then came right back to finish a close third to Lookin At Lucky and First Dude, beaten three-quarters and a head.

In 2011, Shackelford and Animal Kingdom put on a good show in the Preakness, but there was Smith right behind them at the end aboard longshot Astrology for Steve Asmussen.

In 2012, using the same front-running strategy that nearly worked for them in the Derby, Smith thought he had the Preakness all but won with Bodemeister (the sire of Always Dreaming). Then, along came I’ll Have Another again to beat them by a neck.

“They say speed holds at Pimlico, but I won the Preakness from off the pace, so I’m sure it changes year to year,” Smith said. “For sure, the horses with speed will have to go after Always Dreaming at some point for us to have a shot. I’ll just make that one run and try to catch ’em all.”

The strategy is simple and often works, as it did for Prairie Bayou, the gelded son of Little Missouri who was favored in the 1993 Derby but finished second to Sea Hero. After winning the Preakness by half a length over Cherokee Run, Prairie Bayou suffered a fatal injury in the Belmont Stakes, which hit his rider hard. Fortunately, whenever he thinks about Prairie Bayou, the Preakness comes first to mind.

“It was just a great race, man,” Smith said. “I mean, we were able to save ground, ease out, and go between horses. And even though he got hung out turning for home, he finished so strong.

“I’ll always be grateful to him for that day,” Smith added. “Being my first win in a Triple Crown race, I was beside myself. I stayed on that cloud for a long time.”