10/14/2002 11:00PM

Smith stacks his dates at the Cup

Email

ARCADIA, Calif. - Mention the Breeders' Cup to Mike Smith, and the memories come rushing back. There was Lure, the incomparable miler, and winning rides on six other horses, including champions Cherokee Run, Inside Information, and Skip Away.

Three times in the 1990's, Smith was a star on Breeders' Cup Day, winning two races on the nation's richest card. The success propelled his career to a new level, earned him two Eclipse Awards as the nation's outstanding jockey, and seemed to put him on the fast-track to the Hall of Fame.

"Things happened for me," he said.

It has been five years since Smith, 37, won his last Breeders' Cup race, aboard Skip Away in the Classic at Hollywood Park in 1997. Since then, he has overcome a serious back injury, gone through a divorce, and relocated from the New York-Florida circuit to Southern California. In the last year, his career has undergone a revival.

On Oct. 26, for the first time since 1997, Smith will have a strong roster of rides for the Breeders' Cup program, to be run at Arlington Park. Realistically, he hopes to win at least two races. Azeri will be a short-priced favorite to win the Distaff, and Smith has five mounts in the other seven races, with at least a decent chance in each of them.

Most riders would like to have one of the following mounts - Came Home (Classic), Composure (Juvenile Fillies), Kalookan Queen (Sprint), The Tin Man (Turf), and Vindication (Juvenile). Smith has them all.

"Winning on that day takes everything to another level, which you can't get on other days," he said.

In the past four years, very little has gone his way on Breeders' Cup Day. In 1998, Smith missed Cup Day at Churchill Downs because of a back injury suffered that summer at Saratoga.

"Not only was I sitting out, but I was in a lot of pain and that made it worse," he recalled. "I got to commentate. I did several shows. I was a little green, but enjoyed doing it."

From 1999 through 2001, Smith rode only a few horses at each Breeders' Cup, failing to win. Last year, he finished second in the Filly and Mare Turf aboard Spook Express.

While 2001 was a rebuilding year for Smith, he has had better success this year. He and agent Brian Beach arrived in Southern California following the 2001 Kentucky Derby and needed several months to break into a circuit that has a very strong jockey colony. Smith finished 2001 ranked 40th nationally with earnings of $5.4 million.

This year has been more lucrative, with mounts coming on a regular basis from such major trainers as Bob Baffert, Laura de Seroux, Paco Gonzalez, and Richard Mandella.

Mandella used Smith frequently last year and has employed him more this year. For Mandella, Smith will ride The Tin Man in the Turf.

"I can't believe it took him so long to get going," Mandella said. "Maybe people didn't think he was here for real. He stuck it out and it shows."

Through Friday, Smith was ranked 12th in the nation in earnings with $7.6 million. A winner on Breeders' Cup Day could easily vault him into the top 10.

"Horses are coming along for me right now," he said. "Even though we started slow last year, I felt good about it. We built it up little by little and it came together."

Smith's best chance on Breeders' Cup Day is with Azeri, who has won six consecutive stakes this year. "I can't wait for her to run," he said. "I say, let's run it now."

Smith won the Distaff in 1995 aboard Inside Information and in 1997 aboard Ajina. Both were named champions following those performances.

Azeri, who has lost only once in 10 races, reminds Smith of Inside Information, who lost only three times in her 17-race career.

"I think Azeri is better," he said. "They don't look alike, but their running styles remind me a lot of each other."

Among his other rides, Composure in the Juvenile Fillies and Vindication in the Juvenile have the best chances. Smith said the extra sixteenth of a mile in the distance of the juvenile races - 1 1/8 miles rather than the usual 1 1/16 miles - should suit his mounts.

"Composure was just hitting her best stride at the wire," Smith said of her win in the Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 6. "Vindication may not be as far along as other colts, but I think his ability is excellent."

In the Sprint, Smith will ride the mare Kalookan Queen for the first time, having picked up the mount after trainer Bruce Headley and owner Louis Asistio made a decision last week to start her.

The Tin Man will try the Turf distance of 1 1/2 miles for the first time. He was staying on at the end of 1 1/4 miles when he won the Clement Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship at Santa Anita on Oct. 6.

Smith's final mount of the day is Came Home, the upset winner of the Pacific Classic. Smith picked up the mount after Chris McCarron retired in June.

Since then, Smith and Came Home are perfect in two starts, the first of which was the Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park in July.

"Some people compare our styles," Smith said of he and McCarron. "He played a big part in getting me the ride."

The Pacific Classic win was Came Home's debut against older horses. While the Breeders' Cup field will offer more of a challenge, Smith feels Came Home is capable of another surprise.

"I think if he runs that race, he'll be tough," Smith said. "If he improves a little, he'll be very tough. With what he's showing, he's improving."

For Smith, all the elements are in place for a memorable Breeders' Cup Day. He knows what it takes to win. Though some of the memories are growing old, they remain fresh on his mind.