05/04/2004 11:00PM

It's horse racing, not horseshoes

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - "That's it," vowed Mike Smith. "No more seconds. I've got to win that thing."

Easier said than done, of course, winning the Kentucky Derby. There are infinitely more creative ways to lose the race than end up covered in roses. Give Smith a pass, though, for feeling a little bit overdue. Last Saturday's second-place finish aboard Lion Heart was Smith's 11th ride in America's most famous race, and he can do the math.

A Hall of Famer since last summer, Smith has been runner-up in three of those 11 Derby rides. One more and he will tie Pat Day and Laffit Pincay on the all-time list of Kentucky Derby seconds.

Good company, to be sure, and second is nothing to sneeze at, especially in fields of 16 or more. Besides, some very good horses have survived the sting of a second-place Derby finish. The list sparkles with names like Challedon, Alsab, Native Dancer, Sword Dancer, Hill Rise, Arts and Letters, Alydar, and Easy Goer.

There is very little consolation, however, in finishing second in the Derby. For starters, the difference in purse money is staggering. This year, Smarty Jones earned $884,800 from the $1,184,800 Derby pot, while Lion Heart took home $170,000.

In the winner-take-all sports world, the contrast in postrace impact is even greater. Want evidence? Smarty Jones put the Derby on the cover of Sports Illustrated for the first time since 1983. But in the shot used for the cover, Lion Heart was cropped out, even though he was leading at the time. (Although that could be his hind foot, in the lower right hand corner of the image.)

Smith has finished second in the Derby with Prairie Bayou in 1993, Proud Citizen in 2002, and now Lion Heart, along with a third on Cat Thief in 1999 when beaten only a length. Decent horses all, but it is Sea Hero, Charismatic, War Emblem, and Smarty Jones whose names live on.

A look at Smith's 11 Derby mounts reveals just how hard it is to win, even when mounted extremely well. With few exceptions, Smith has landed a live one for Derby Day. Holy Bull and Unbridled's Song were favored. Prairie Bayou and Smith went on to win the Preakness. Devil His Due, Thirty Six Red, and Talkin Man all won the Wood Memorial in their pre-Derby starts.

"Poor Holy Bull just didn't fire," Smith said. "Unbridled's Song would have won if he didn't have a hole in his foot the size of my head. And Prairie Bayou ran great, but it was Sea Hero who got all the breaks that day, getting through every step of the way."

Going in, Lion Heart fit the hopeful mold, with promising seconds in the San Rafael and Blue Grass. Smith was surprised he lost, especially on a packed muddy track he figured to relish.

"Lion Heart is very light on his feet, almost like a deer, and not like some over those bigger, flat-footed plodding kind of colts," Smith said. "When the storm hit, I knew there'd be a lot of horses who couldn't handle it, and I knew my colt would love it," Smith went on. "Problem was, Smarty Jones loved it even more."

It was a frustrating day all the way around for Smith, who also finished second on Azeri in the Humana Distaff Handicap, two hours before the Derby. They were beaten a head at the end of seven furlongs by Mayo on the Side, a 5-year-old daughter of French Deputy with only a non-graded stakes win to her name.

"She ran great," Smith said. "She always does. But seven furlongs is a real tough distance, especially after she's used to getting an easy lead going a mile and an eighth. You've got to run hard all the way."

Essentially, owner Michael Paulson and trainer D. Wayne Lukas were asking Azeri to do something she'd never done before, at the age of 6, on a surface she had never encountered. Still, she almost pulled it off.

"She gave away 11 pounds and she didn't break real sharp, so that really cost her," Smith added. "If she'd have won, even with Lion Heart finishing second, it would have been a great day."

Smith was back in action at Hollywood Park on Wednesday, gearing up for a stakes weekend that will include the call on Ballingarry in Saturday's $350,000 Jim Murray Memorial Handicap, at a mile and a half on the grass. His trainer, Laura de Seroux, describes Ballingarry as a "time bomb ready to go off."

"He's sure been training good," said Smith, who has been aboard Ballingarry for several morning moves. "He's one of those horses who's just getting warmed up after running a mile."

For Smith, winning the Murray would be satisfying, a proper way for a Hall of Famer to spend a Saturday afternoon. Forgive him, though, if his thoughts stray in the coming week to Pimlico, where he will team up with Lion Heart on May 15 for the rematch with Smarty Jones.

"No more seconds," Smith said, repeating his mantra. "I don't want to hear 'nice try' anymore."