11/06/2010 7:07PM

Smith feels the pain of Zenyatta's loss

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Alysse Jacobs
"It hurts more than I can explain just because it was my fault," said Smith. "She should have won."

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Mike Smith jumped off Zenyatta following Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, dirt in his face, tears in his eyes. He was used to the former. He had never experienced the latter.

After getting accolades for more than two years for his rides aboard Zenyatta - through 16 of the mare’s 19 straight victories including two Breeders’ Cup triumphs - Smith blamed himself for that streak coming to an end by a head to Blame in Saturday’s $5 million Classic at Churchill Downs.

Smith said he wished he could have done more to get Zenyatta into the race early on and into the clear late. When she finally did get room at the three-sixteenths pole, she couldn’t run down Blame, the top older male in the country and probable Horse of the Year.

“It hurts more than I can explain just because it was my fault,” Smith said, before breaking down in tears in the interview room. “She should have won.”

Zenyatta’s patented late kick that had carried her from last to first in 19 straight races - many by the narrowest of margins - fell just a bit short. So too, most likely, her bid for Horse of the Year, a title that has that has thus far eluded her.

Smith said there were a couple of key moments in the race that may have contributed to the defeat. The first came shortly after the gates opened.

“I couldn’t get her going the first part; the dirt was hitting her and she was a bit overwhelmed by it in the beginning,” Smith said. “She finally leveled off and started taking me.”

The troubled beginning forced Zenyatta to be 15 lengths off the pace after three-quarters of a mile, even farther back than normal. Smith got Zenyatta in gear closer down the backside and had her moving well entering the far turn. Approaching the quarter pole, however, Smith had to take a hold of Zenyatta as Quality Road began to tire in front of her.

“I had to tap on the brakes when Quality Road came back on me so quick; that cost me at least a good jump,” Smith said. “I just know she was the best horse. I hate to go out this way, that’s all.”
In upper stretch, Smith needed a few strides to swing Zenyatta to the outside. Smith was able to get Zenyatta out and into the clear at the three-sixteenths pole. But he said the roar from the 72,739 - the majority of whom wanted to see Zenyatta win - distracted her briefly.

The crowd was roaring so hard she kind of pricked her ears and looked over at them, Smith said. “I was really getting after her all I could, but it is what it is. If I just could have got a little better first position first time around. . . . I was on the best horse, trust me.”

In time, Smith will be able to reflect back fondly on Zenyatta’s amazing career and the ride she took him on. Saturday night was not that time.

“I think she ranks up there with the greatest of all time,” Smith said. “If I had won this you could arguably have said she was. To come up a [head] short is just too hard, it’s hard.”