Mike Smith aboard Zenyatta at the 2009 Breeders’ Cup
(Associated Press photo)
By NICOLE RUSSO
As far as Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith is concerned, Zenyatta did her job. The only one he’s blaming is himself.
For the first time in their 17-race partnership, Smith didn’t return to the winner’s circle aboard Zenyatta following a race. Instead, he was struggling to speak through tears at a news conference shortly after his mare’s furious rally came up a head short against Blame in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, ending Zenyatta’s bid to retire a perfect 20-0.
“I feel like I let her down,” Smith said. “I left her too much to do.”
Zenyatta, the even-money favorite, was unhurried out of the gate in the Classic and trailed the field through the early stages, as is typical for her. She was over 16 lengths behind the leaders going into the first turn, but better than seven lengths behind the second-to-last horse. Smith said that Zenyatta, making just her third start on a conventional dirt track, wasn’t happy with the amount of kickback flying in her face early.
“In the beginning, she struggled with the track,” he said. “She didn’t like all that dirt flying at her.”
The big mare was still 11th of 12 and nearly 13 lengths behind at the top of the stretch. Rather that immediately swinging her outside entering the turn for home, as he’s typically done in the mare’s wins, Smith chose to go inside to try to make up precious ground on the leaders.
“Just a wall of horses, so I couldn’t let her pick it up quite like I wanted to,” Smith said. “I guess I could have swung out and maybe done it. But then I was going to be way out wide and then have to commit myself to staying wide at that point. And after the sluggish start and the way she handled the first part of the race, I truly felt that I needed to cut some corners somewhere, so that’s what I tried to do.”
But Smith had to tap on the brakes at the quarter pole, as Quality Road, who was near the pace early, retreated through the field.
“I think that cost me the race,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, Blame, who had come five wide into the stretch, had forged his way to the lead inside the final furlong. Zenyatta was finally in the clear and rallying furiously on the outside. With the crowd in a full-throated roar for the duration of the stretch drive, she ate into the margin with every stride, but the wire got there just in time for Blame. The official margin was a head.
“It hurts more than you … than I can explain,” Smith said, his voice breaking. He paused for a long moment before continuing, “Just because it was my fault. She should have won, and it hurts.”
Smith, a 2003 Hall of Fame inductee, had ridden a number of stellar horses during his career – including Hall members Holy Bull (’01), Skip Away (’04) and Azeri (’10). He has stated that Zenyatta, who will certainly join him in the Hall of Fame upon her eligibility, is perhaps the greatest he’s been aboard.
“I believe she ranks up there with the greatest of all time,” he said. “To come up a nose short … it’s just too hard to … it’s just hard.”