BALTIMORE — It’s a game of constantly shifting alliances. You win a race, then ride the next one for the trainer whose horse you just beat by a nose. You weigh in, dash to the jockeys’ room, quickly change silks and get ready to try to beat the trainer for whom you just won.
It happens every day at dozens of tracks, to teenaged apprentices and 50-something Hall of Famers. Last spring Mike Smith rode Justify to the Triple Crown for Bob Baffert, and for this year’s Derby he jumped off Baffert’s Santa Anita Derby winner, Roadster, to stick with Omaha Beach and trainer Richard Mandella.
Smith said there were no hard feelings with Baffert.
“No, honestly, Bob is really good that way,” Smith said. “He’s good on both sides of it. If he’s having to make the change, he’s the first one to tell you, and it’s nothing personal. And he’s extremely just the same if it’s the other way. I’ve never seen him get upset about it.”
The day after Omaha Beach was made the Derby’s 4-1 morning-line favorite, he was scratched because of a throat ailment. Two days later, Smith had another mount, after owner Jack Wolf unhorsed Corey Lanerie on Cutting Humor. There was no happy ending for anybody when Cutting Humor finished 10th.
On Saturday, Smith and Baffert will reconnect with Improbable, who on Wednesday was made the Preakness’ 5-2 morning-line favorite pretty much by default. He’s 0-for-3 this year after running a never-close fifth in the Derby (placed fourth after Maximum Security was disqualified from first to 17th). With the first four Derby finishers sitting this one out, the spotlight is on Improbable.
That’s the way it was a year ago with Smith and Justify, yet the vibe is a 180. Justify was unquestionably the best 3-year-old, while Improbable is an underachiever with stamina questions. Will he get 1 3/16 miles at Pimlico after failing at 1¼ at Churchill Downs?
“I’m not thinking Triple Crown this time, but I am picking up a horse in a classic, which always is huge,” Smith said. “Going in, your mindset is not different about trying to win. We’re going in with a game plan so that I can get an A-plus race out of this horse, because I know there’s a lot in there we haven’t seen yet.”
If any combination can get it out of him, it’s Triple Crown Bob and Big Money Mike. Besides Justify, they have collaborated for triumphs in the Dubai World Cup, Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. If Improbable wins, they’ll set Preakness records for victories by a trainer (eight) and oldest rider (Smith is 53).
“Bob will go down as one of the greatest trainers of all time,” Smith said, “and he knows how to get these 3-year-olds right for these kinds of races.
“We have a lot of mutual respect. Not only is he a great trainer, but he’s a good coach. He lets me ride with a clear mind and no handcuffs. I get to do what I feel is right. I might call a complete audible, and he’ll ask me about it, but he’ll understand.”
Improbable was 3-for-3 last year before being sidelined by minor throat surgery. He was second by a neck to Long Range Toddy in the Rebel Stakes and by a length, to Omaha Beach, in the Arkansas Derby. He still hasn’t recaptured his mojo or reached his potential.
“Sometimes the first time you ride one is the best time,” Smith said. “I have a knack with that sometimes. I don’t know what it is. So I’m just hoping for one of those again.”