04/06/2011 12:45PM

Santa Anita Derby: Smith, Shirreffs team again with Mr. Commons

Shigeki Kikkawa
Mr. Commons, with jockey Mike Smith up, wins an allowance race on Feb. 26 at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Mike Smith says that the Kentucky Derby can weigh on a rider’s mind each spring.

“I don’t know when you want it the most – after you’ve won it once or if you’ve never won it,” he said on a recent morning at Santa Anita. “When you’ve won it, you want to win it again. You can imagine all you want, but until you do it . . . It feels like it’s a life changer.”

Smith is familiar with those feelings. He won his first Kentucky Derby on the longshot Giacomo in 2005, his 12th mount in the race. His first mount was in 1984 when he finished sixth on Pine Circle, at the age of 18, less than two years after his career started. Since Giacomo’s win, Smith, 45, has ridden the race every year, with his best finish during that span a fifth on Chocolate Candy in 2009.

This year, there is no guarantee of a mount. His primary hope rests with Mr. Commons, an improving colt trained by John Shirreffs who makes his stakes debut in Saturday’s $1 million Santa Anita Derby.

SANTA ANITA DERBY DAY: See Brad Free's video previews and watch the race live on DRF.com

For Smith and Shirreffs, the Santa Anita Derby is the first time they’ve teamed together in a graded stakes since Zenyatta finished second in her only loss in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs last November. The brilliant career of Zenyatta, the 2010 Horse of the Year whom Smith rode to 16 consecutive wins from April 2008 until last October, is not their only accomplishment together. Shirreffs trained Giacomo as well as 2007 Santa Anita Derby winner Tiago, who was ridden by Smith.

This spring, Smith and Shirreffs could be back at Churchill again, trying for their second Kentucky Derby wins.

“They’d really think we’re a team then,” Smith said.

Ideally, Mr. Commons would be at this stage of his career in early March and not early April and have time for an additional prep race in an important stakes.

“I wish it wasn’t quite like that,” Smith said of the timing. “He’s got the ability, but he doesn’t have the experience. He’s coming along.”

Mr. Commons is on a two-race winning streak and has started just three times. Owned by St. George Farm Racing, Mr. Commons was sixth in a maiden race on the synthetic main track at Hollywood Park in December, his only loss. He won a maiden race on the hillside turf course at Santa Anita by 5 1/2 lengths on Jan. 15 and an allowance race over a mile on the main track Feb. 26.

KENTUCKY DERBY NEWS: Track all the 3-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail

In the allowance race, Mr. Commons was always near the front, disputed the lead on the final turn, and fought through the stretch to win by a head.

“He showed a lot of heart and he finished up,” Smith said. “He’s got the ability to move up, but he’s got to get things right. If he gets the opportunity, he’ll run big.”

The Santa Anita Derby, run over 1 1/8 miles, will provide the necessary test. The top contenders include Premier Pegasus and Jaycito, the first two finishers in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 12; Anthony’s Cross, winner of the Grade 2 Robert Lewis Stakes on Feb. 12; and Silver Medallion, who won the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby on Feb. 12.

Shirreffs is hopeful, but guarded, about Mr. Commons’s chances, considering the horse has had only three starts.

“We’re a little behind,” he said earlier this week. “Horses have to take you places, and let’s hope he does.”

Mr. Commons has a lot to prove. In last weekend’s third division of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, Mr. Commons closed at 96-1, the second-highest price of the 22 individual horses.

So far, Mr. Commons is Smith’s best chance for a Kentucky Derby mount. He considered taking a mount in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 16 but will stay at Santa Anita to ride the multiple stakes winner Cozi Rosie, the expected favorite in the Grade 2 Santa Barbara Handicap.

All of that is a long way from 1984, when he went rode his first Kentucky Derby.

“It was the first time I flew to ride a horse,” Smith recalled last weekend. “I wasn’t sure how to get from the airport to the track. There were a bunch of people on the flight going to the Derby. I rode with some of them. I didn’t know you had to park two miles from the track. I should have walked from the airport.”

Smith’s life is far different now. His level of recognition with the general public grew with Giacomo’s win and has since soared thanks to Zenyatta.

He’s figured out Louisville, too. Smith knows the roads that lead to Churchill Downs, especially how to get around that track on the biggest racing day of the year.

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