BALTIMORE | Mine That Bird co-owner Dr. Leonard Blach got to know Mike Smith in the 1970s when the jockey was riding match races as a teenager in New Mexico.
They struck up a friendship that has lasted more than 30 years, so when Blach discovered he needed a jockey to replace Calvin Borel at the Preakness, he called Smith - who rode Chocolate Candy in the Kentucky Derby - for advice.
“Then he told me he was available,” Blach said. “Of course I didn’t know; I didn’t know whether Chocolate Candy would go back, and he said, ‘No, right now I’m available.’ So I said, ‘Well, you just plan on it.’ ”
Just like that, the Derby winner had a Hall of Fame rider. Smith arrived at Pimlico on Friday and met with Mine That Bird trainer Chip Woolley. Bob Baffert, whose horse Pioneerof the Nile finished second in the Derby, joked that Borel should’ve gotten the purse and given the owners 10 percent instead of the opposite - more praise for Borel’s rail-hugging ride. But Smith said he didn’t feel any pressure to follow that performance.
“There’s pressure in every race,” Smith said. “If there’s not, then you’re not excited about your job. It’s just how you use that energy. We’re gonna go out there and do our best.”
Born in Roswell, Smith makes Mine That Bird’s New Mexico ties that much stronger. And the connections don’t end there; Smith was the jockey aboard 50-1 shot Giacomo when he won the 2005 Derby.
Smith said he hopes Saturday’s result is the same, adding that a muddy track similar to what was present at Churchill Downs couldn’t hurt. And if the result is the same, what would Blach and co-owner Mark Allen do for the Belmont Stakes if Borel’s new ride, Rachel Alexandra, doesn’t run?
“Mark and I will have to talk about that,” Blach said. “We’re pretty loyal people, so we’ll probably stay like we are. We were fortunate to get Mike.”
Second chance for ‘Pioneer’
Even though Pioneer of the Nile finished second in the Derby, Baffert didn’t hesitate to say he thought his horse got the worst trip in the race. He cited the Ricky Bobby character in “Talladega Nights” by noting, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
“Only race in America - nobody remembers who runs second,” Baffert said. “This is a redeeming race.”
Woolley has been shaking off questions about the lack of respect Mine That Bird is getting. Instead, he suggested that Pioneerof the Nile, the 5-1 second choice on the morning line, is being ignored.
Rachel Alexandra got her first gallop in on the Pimlico dirt Friday morning with exercise rider Dominic Terry. Assistant trainer Scott Blasi said the 8-5 morning-line favorite looks relaxed and happy.
D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Preakness five times and will run Flying Private and Luv Gov on Saturday, said Rachel Alexandra’s lead-up to the race has been “perfect.”