LOUISVILLE, Ky. — For jockey Mike Smith, Churchill Downs has been the scene of triumph and tragedy – a huge win and an excruciating loss.
A veteran of 18 Kentucky Derby rides and a winner but once, Smith will be hoping there’s an “umph” in what’s to come as he guides Dogwood Stable’s Palace Malice to the post this afternoon.
Smith, who won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, scored an unlikely victory in the Run for the Roses eight years ago when Giacomo stormed home at odds of 50-1, running down the leaders in the final 70 yards.
At the time, only Donerail in 1913, at 91-1, had provided a larger payoff. Mine That Bird squeezed between this pair four years ago.
Giacomo’s stunning upset set off a wild celebration among the colt’s connections – consisting of owners Mr. and Mrs. Jerome Moss, trainer John Shirreffs and Smith – with the few supporters at the betting windows joining in. Five-and-a-half years later, the same crew returned to the Downs with Zenyatta, primed to make the final start of her unblemished career in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Tragedy struck when Zenyatta fell far behind in the early going, experienced traffic trouble coming through the field and, despite launching a blistering drive down the stretch, fell a head short of catching Blame at the wire. This time, the vast majority of fans sympathized with Mosses, Shirreffs and Smith.
It’s no understatement to say that Smith knows his way around Churchill Downs, one of the main reasons he will be aboard Palace Malice. One of the more patient riders, Smith should be a good fit for a colt that will need to relax in the early going and be close to the front if the pace is slow and a bit further back if they’re going, in the words of Dogwood president Cot Campbell, “like scalded dogs” up front.
When asked whether Smith is the right jockey for Palace Malice, Campbell said, “I don’t think there’s any way he couldn’t be. He’s won over 5,000 races; he’s a big money rider; he’s won the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont; and he’s 48 years old and in his prime right now.”
Palace Malice has been ridden by Javier Castellano, Rosie Napravnik, Edgar Prado and Garrett Gomez during his career.
“When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, we wanted someone who had been there a lot,” Campbell said. “I think he’ll be perfect. He was committed to a horse that was in the Arkansas Derby, but when that horse dropped off the Derby trail, he became available and we grabbed him.”
Palace Malice has experienced troubled trips in a racing career that has produced only one trip to the winner’s circle. Only two other Kentucky Derby winners in the modern era have had so little success leading into the Run for the Roses – Alysheba and Giacomo.
Smith has been there and done that.