A day like no other for Hall of Famer Mike Smith

By NICOLE RUSSO
Mike Smith, a 2003 Hall of Fame inductee, is poised to have a big day on Saturday at the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Churchill Downs.

But despite live chances in several races, there is one that’s bigger than the others – literally and figuratively.

Smith will go postward aboard the unbeaten Zenyatta as she defends her title in North America’s richest race, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. The daughter of Street Cry is a red-hot favorite to repeat in the race she became the first female to win a year ago. A victory would push her career record to an unbelievable 20-0, with 18 of those races coming in graded company.

All eyes are on the pair this week. Hundreds of fans followed Zenyatta from her barn to the track on Thursday morning as she went out for a routine gallop toward the end of training hours. Dozens more gathered on the sidewalk on Longfield Avenue, which borders Churchill Downs, to get a glimpse of the mare through the fence as she was bathed and grazed. The massive mare – who, at over 17.1 hands, is taller and broader than most of her male rivals – seems to be taking it all in stride, pricking her ears and posing for photos.

Smith seems unfazed as well. He was among the group that followed his mare on Thursday morning as regular exercise rider Steve Willard took her to the track. While the mare was galloping, he amiably stood in the crowd graciously posing for photos, signing autographs, and sharing Zenyatta stories with onlookers.

Smith, who several times has agreed to wear a helmet cam during Zenyatta’s workouts so fans can experience the action firsthand, said he feels a responsibility to the many supporters of Zenyatta.

“People really watch her now,” he told the Associated Press earlier this week. “The fans that adore her. I feel the pressure for them, too. I got to get it right, at least do my part.”

Smith has ridden the winners of 13 Breeders’ Cup events and has captured each leg of the Triple Crown. He has been the rider for several outstanding horses, including Hall of Famers Holy Bull (’01), Skip Away (’04), and Azeri (’10). Despite that wealth, Smith has never shied away from singing Zenyatta’s praises. He has stated that the mare, who he became the regular rider for in her fourth career start, is already among racing’s all-time greats – and that another Classic win would only cement that.

“If we’re blessed enough to finish this thing 20-0, how do you even describe it?” he said. “It would just be incredible.”

Smith has live chances in several other Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. He will team up with fellow Hall of Famer Bill Mott in the Mile with Proviso. The mare brings a four-race Grade I win streak into an extremely competitive race that features two-time defending champion Goldikova and dual Eclipse Award champion Gio Ponti.

Mott, a 1998 Hall inductee, is looking for his second Breeders’ Cup win of the weekend and seventh overall. He saddled Unrivaled Belle to win the Ladies Classic on Friday.

Smith also teams up with the legendary Wayne Lukas to try to take the Dirt Mile with 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird. Lukas, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, has won 18 Breeders’ Cup events – more than any other trainer.

Smith was aboard Mine That Bird in the 2009 Preakness, guiding him to a second-place finish behind eventual Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. But Mine That Bird hasn’t won – or even hit the board – in over a year.

Smith will pilot California standout Jaycito, winner of the Norfolk last time out, in the Juvenile.

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