Mike Smith appeared dazed in the moments after his horse, Bodemeister, was again beaten by Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another — this time by a neck in Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. The veteran jockey wore the frozen smile of a man hardly able to fathom what had just transpired.
"I swear I don't know how he ran me down, man," Smith said after trainer Bob Baffert approached in the fading sunlight.
"You did a good job," the 59-year-old trainer told the 46-year-old jockey, a fellow Hall of Famer and former Preakness winner who recently passed 5,000 career victories.
A few minutes earlier, bedlam erupted behind Baffert as he stood stiffly waiting for the NBC cameras to focus on him. Standing not far from the finish line, Baffert seemed impervious as fellow trainer Doug O'Neill and his entourage formed a human conga line across the dirt track.
Baffert brushed aside a few strands of his famous white hair. He fidgeted with his cell phone. Though Baffert kidded at last Thursday's Alibi Breakfast that he needed to take a "couple of squirts" from his bottle of nitroglycerine that was prescribed after he suffered a heart attack six weeks ago during Bodemeister's earlier defeat, he seemed to take Saturday's disappointment in stride.
After watching a near replay of what transpired in the first leg of the Triple Crown two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby, Baffert seemed resigned to coming in second to a potential Triple Crown winner for the second straight race.
"The winner's a good horse," Baffert said. "It was a good horse race. I really can't complain. We didn't win it, but my horse ran a good race. The winner's a good horse, and now he'll get the respect he deserves. California horses are really tough; they ran 1-2-3. I'm proud my horse showed up."
I'll Have Another will now try to become the first horse since Affirmed to win the Triple Crown at next month's Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y. There won't be a third race between I'll Have Another and Bodemeister.
"He gets off the bus here," Baffert said.
Baffert was a bit surprised at how Bodemeister — who came into both the Derby and Preakness as the pre-race favorite — lost this time. At Churchill Downs, Bodemeister seemed to expend too much energy keeping up with a couple of other horses that set a blistering early pace.
This time, the slower fractions seemed to favor Bodemeister keeping the lead, if not building on it. After leading by a length over Tiger Walk a quarter of a mile into a race, then by a length over third-place finisher Creative Cause halfway through, Bodemeister led by as many as 3 ½ lengths over I'll Have Another heading down the backstretch.
"I felt really good about where he was," Baffert said. "He looked like he was travelling nicely down the backside. The fractions were good today. Turning for home, I really thought he's going to do it. He got a little light there at the end."
Baffert was asked if he had a little feeling of Derby déjà vu.
"I usually win those. I don't know what happened here," Baffert joked. "He ran a game race. It was a good horse race. The crowd got its money's worth."
Baffert added that he had a "better feeling" Saturday than he did in Kentucky.
"It looked like he was going to win it, but you can tell the last 16th he was starting to tire and the other caught him," Baffert said.
If Baffert was surprised, Smith was stunned.
"I think we ran a brilliant race," Smith said. "I don't understand how we got beat. I'm still dumbfounded. I really am."
Smith compared the two races to the Triple Crown showdowns nearly a quarter-century ago between two legendary horses.
"They're both brilliant. It's like Alydar and Affirmed — they're both brilliant horses," he said. "Alydar could have beat Affirmed but somehow he didn't."
As Baffert went over to console Smith, the two seemed to be at a loss for words, their conversation a bit forced. Baffert, who admitted to watching I'll Have Another in the paddock before the race and then throughout the Preakness Stakes, still had an image of the backstretch in his head. The image of I'll Have Another reverberated with both the losing trainer and jockey.
"Son of a gun, he…" Smith started before pausing.
"He's a good horse," Baffert interjected.
"He really is. He really is," Smith said.
Just a little better than their Bodemeister.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun