Someone asked jockey Mike Smith at what point he felt he had the 145th running of the Belmont Stakes locked up Saturday aboard 13-1 shot Palace Malice. The question made Smith cringe at the memory of his second-place finish a year ago on Paynter, when he let Union Rags and jockey John Velazquez through on the rail in the stretch.
"It ain't locked up," Smith said. "Look at last year. I thought it was locked up, and he got through on the inside on me. So, it ain't over until it's over."
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That Yogi Berra-ism aside, Smith's competitors disagreed. When Gary Stevens on Preakness champ Oxbow felt Smith pull alongside at the top of the stretch, he took a page out of his movie role in "Seabiscuit" and spoke directly to Smith.
"When I ranged up next to him, it was like a movie scene," Smith said. "He looked over to me, and I could see his face clear as day. He says, 'Go on little brother. You're moving better than me. Just ride off to your win. Don't leave me yet.' And I won, and he ran second. You couldn't have written a script any better."
That bit of improv was just one delightful part of a perfect script for Smith in marked contrast to last year's unhappy ending. Palace Malice came in rested after skipping the Preakness following a 12th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Todd Pletcher put blinkers on the horse that day, and he went out like a runaway freight train amid the noise at Churchill Downs before derailing.
"With all that noise behind him, he was just running scared," Smith said. "He completely ran through the bridle . . . He certainly got a lot out of the Derby. I mean, he was actually stealing the race at the eighth pole. Considering he never once took a second breath of air running that fast, he ran incredibly well."
Pletcher told Smith he believed Palace Malice had a big race in him, and he designed what turned out to be the perfect game plan. He told Smith to expect Freedom Child to go to the early lead and Oxbow to sit just to the right of him. Smith essentially parked Palace Malice on Oxbow's flank and waited to make his move.
Belmont is a much more spacious place than Churchill Downs, and it was relatively quiet down the backstretch far away from the crowd of 47,562. Palace Malice settled into a beautiful rhythm.
"It seemed like every 10 strides, he would just fill up with air again, and there he'd start," Smith said.
This was the second Belmont win for the Hall of Fame jockey to go with his 2010 victory on Drosselmeyer, and it was the fourth straight time he's hit the board in the Belmont. Describing his experience over the big track, Smith mentioned Stevens' comment earlier in the week that it's "like an ocean and you can get lost in it if you don't know it."
But Smith added, "These are my waters. I know where the fish are at."