If Mike Smith rides the Bob Baffert-trained Improbable to victory Saturday in the Preakness, there will be no waves of shock and awe kicked up with the dirt inside Pimlico Race Course.
Kentucky Derby winner Country House and disqualified winner Maximum Security are not running. Improbable is the morning-line favorite. Smith, 53, swept last year’s Triple Crown races aboard Justify. A Baffert horse has won the Preakness seven times.
The only real mystery will be how it took so long for Smith to find his way to the chestnut colt.
“This isn’t uncommon,” the Hall of Fame jockey said during a teleconference last week. “This happens and, especially during this Triple Crown stuff, there’s a lot of musical chairs.”
Improbable has three wins in his six starts. Smith will be the fourth jockey aboard — and he’s already faced the first three on the track.
Co-owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Starlight Racing, Improbable broke his maiden last year with jockey Drayden Van Dyke. After two more wins with Van Dyke, including a victory at Los Alamitos Race Course over the Smith-manned Dueling, Jose Ortiz guided Improbable to a second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby last month.
The only horse better than Improbable that day? Omaha Beach. And the jockey? Smith, of course.
At Churchill Downs, the horse-jockey jumbling accelerated. Mapped out on a flow chart, the Derby’s comings and goings would have been a mess of arrows and scratched-out names. Consider:
- The Richard Mandella-trained Omaha Beach was the morning-line favorite … until he was withdrawn three days before the race because of an entrapped epiglottis, a flap of cartilage in the throat that keeps food from entering the windpipe.
- Smith moved on from Omaha Beach and replaced Corey Lanerie aboard Cutting Humor … but only because Baffert had committed to having Florent Geroux pilot Roadster, whom Smith had ridden to three victories in four starts, including the Santa Anita Derby.
- After Jose Ortiz chose the Bill Mott-trained Tacitus, the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial champion, over Baffert’s Improbable, his replacement was … his brother, Irad Jr., who switched off Win Win Win after riding the Maryland-based colt (and now Preakness contender) into the Kentucky Derby with a runner-up finish in the Blue Grass Stakes.
The Derby’s results, confounding as they were at the finish line, clarified Improbable’s direction. After the horse’s fifth-place finish (fourth after the disqualification), and with Cutting Humor placing only 10th, Baffert wanted to reunite with the California-based Smith. “Mike and I have a little luck together,” he said, referring to their Triple Crown partnership last year.
“You feel good with expertise,” Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar Farm, said Wednesday, after Improbable drew the drew the No. 4 post and was made the 5-2 morning-line favorite. “I mean, look, this horse has had great riders. We can’t complain about the riders that he’s had. I know Bob felt like he’s had a lot of luck with Mike, and he’s a karma kind of guy, and he wanted to go with the West Coast guy.”
Saturday’s 13-horse field has all the continuity of a shuffled playlist. Eight other jockeys who rode in the Kentucky Derby have a new mount in Baltimore. That includes Geroux, now aboard Owendale, and both Ortiz brothers: Irad is guiding Bourbon War, and Jose is handling Anothertwistafate.
Smith said he and Baffert know there’s “nothing personal” when one chooses to ride another horse or go with another jockey. He joked that he’s admired Improbable from afar — “and sometimes from behind.” The horse has shown “signs of brilliance at different times,” he said, but hasn’t run its best race yet.
Could it come during his first with Smith?
“I mean, I have a knack with that sometimes,” Smith said. “I don’t know what it is. I wish I could — whatever it is, it seems to work at times really well. So I’m just hoping for one of those again.”