Jockey Mike Smith celebrates after riding Royal Delta to victory in the… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
Quite the ladies' man, this Mike Smith.
He may be bald, he may be just a little guy, and he may be just three years shy of that symbolic male decline age of 50. But put him in the saddle of a filly or mare in a big-money horse race and it is instant mutual love.
Friday at Santa Anita, in a $2-million Ladies' Classic Breeders' Cup race that was expected to be the best and most closely contested of all the 15 races in this two-day, $25.5-million thoroughbred extravaganza, Smith guided his current girlfriend, Royal Delta, to a convincing length-and-a-half victory.
Part of Smith's way with the ladies is his understanding of the oft-recommended way of occasionally handling male-female dynamics.
"The best thing to do is to stay out of her way," Smith said, "and that's what I did."
The successful couple, facing off against a field so talented that it included seven Grade I stakes winners and two unbeatens, burst from the gate at the front and stayed there. It was an impressive showing, even without all the accompanying landmarks it brought.
For Royal Delta, it was her second straight Ladies' Classic victory, something achieved only once before, by Ron McAnally's Bayakoa in 1989 and '90. The '90 race is best, and worst, remembered because of Go For Wand's breaking down in the neck-and-neck stretch duel with Bayakoa. My Miss Aurelia, one of the unbeaten entrants along with Awesome Feather, finished second to Royal Delta, but never got quite close enough for a stretch duel.
For trainer Bill Mott, it was his ninth Breeders' Cup victory, which put him in second place all-time. That would probably feel better were it not for leader Wayne Lukas winning his 19th earlier in the day. That's not quite an unreachable Joe DiMaggio-type record, but it's a big hill for other trainers to climb.
After his victory with the longest shot in the field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint, Lukas indicated that his retirement plans would begin to take shape sometime in the next 20 years. Lukas is 77.
For Smith, who passed the 5,000-victory mark earlier this season and seems to have a retirement target date similar to Lukas', the victory was a gigantic milestone. He broke Jerry Bailey's riding record for most Breeders' Cup wins with his 16th.
"This is one of the greatest days of my life," Smith said.
It was also the fifth time he has won the Ladies' Classic, previously called the Distaff. He previously won in 1995 with Inside Information, in 1997 with Ajina, in '02 with Azeri and in 2009 with a horse named Zenyatta.
Talk about love.
Smith was in the saddle for all but three of Zenyatta's 19 victories in her 20 races. He rode her to the first-ever female victory over the boys in the Classic in 2009 at Santa Anita. There is likely to never be another like her, but if Smith were feeling any relationship void over Zenyatta's departure to the breeding barn, Royal Delta is at least a good rebound affair.
Smith has now ridden Royal Delta five times, winning four, with one second.
Royal Delta was sold four days after she won last year's Ladies' Classic. The price was an astounding $8.5 million and the buyer was Benjamin Leon, who, interestingly, outbid Santa Anita owner Frank Stronach. Mott had trained her in last year's Ladies' Classic at Churchill Downs, then watched her being removed from his barn for the sale and had to fidget for a week or so until Leon sent her back.
"I want to thank Mr. Leon for having confidence in me," Mott said. "It's such a matter of pride to have a horse of that quality."
Leon said Royal Delta would be raced another year, at age 5, and then retire to breeding in 2014. He said among the plans was to run her in the Dubai World Cup in March, a $10-million race. This March, she finished ninth in that race. There was, understandably because it is a year away, no commitment from Royal Delta's connections as to next year's Breeders' Cup Classic, and perhaps a Zenyatta-like run at the boys.
Certainly, with Smith in the saddle, fears of equine-gender unease would be much lessened. He has been there and done that, with Zenyatta in '09 and '10, when she suffered her only loss.
Mott and Smith won't have to wait long for an other classic moment. Both could play big roles in Saturday's $5-million feature race, but they are on different teams. And if Mott is paying close attention, he should be a little nervous about that, even though he has three entries.
Mott's horses are Honor And Serve, Ron The Greek and Flat Out.
Smith will ride a horse named Mucho Macho Man, who is trained by a woman named Kathy Ritvo.
If you are a hunch player, this is manna from heaven. The only thing better would be if the race were on Valentine's Day and Smith rode in a white tuxedo.