Nation's top rider at gate for his first Million mounts Nice guy finishes 1st MARYLAND MILLION 1994

September 30, 1994|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Sun Staff Writer

Mike Smith is such a nice guy, he won't even begin to rate all the champions he has ridden in the past couple of years.

"I don't want to offend anyone," he said when asked to compare such great mounts as Holy Bull, Lure, Prairie Bayou and Sky Beauty.

"Yeah," agreed his agent, Steve Adika. "He's the good guy, and I'm the bad one. I take all the heat if we lose. But that's what works for us. Mike is a real gentleman."

Tomorrow, Mr. Nice Guy, the nation's leading jockey for the second year in a row, invades Laurel Race Course for his first Maryland Million.

Never mind the fact that Smith is more famous than any of the horses he'll be riding or that he never has seen at least seven of the nine horses he'll climb aboard.

Smith said he's thrilled to be here, glad to be invited down for the day from Belmont Park "by some of the people I ride for."

By that, Smith means officials of Claiborne Farm, the owner of Lure. They are longtime friends and associates of the family of Stuart Janney III, the Maryland Million's new president.

Two of Smith's nine Laurel mounts are the Janney-owned Military Look, a double Maryland Million winner and entry tomorrow in the Sprint, and Warning Glance, who runs in the Maryland Million Turf. Smith also is riding two other horses for Charlie Hadry, the Janney family's Maryland trainer.

As much as Smith's presence tomorrow is a bonus for the Janneys, the 29-year-old jockey also could reap real benefits from riding on the Million card.

Smith is on a quest.

Last year en route to winning his first Eclipse Award, emblematic of the national riding championship, Smith won 62 stakes races, a North American record.

Already Smith's count this year is up to 55 stakes victories, which means the jockey is in a good spot, with three months left, to win eight more stakes and break his own mark.

At Laurel tomorrow, he'll ride in nine stakes races in one day, more than he rode last year when he had mounts in all seven races on the Breeders' Cup card, winning one, the Mile, with Lure.

"You have to think Mike is in a good position to win another Eclipse," Adika said. "If he breaks the stakes mark, continues to be No. 1 in money won [so far $11.9 million compared to $9 million for runner-up Pat Day] and rides Holy Bull, who could be Horse of the Year, you'd have to think he'd get it."

Smith would be the first jockey since Day in 1986-87 to win consecutive Eclipse Awards.

Smith's high-profile career switched gears when he moved from being Day's Midwest shadow in 1989 to riding at the New York tracks in 1990. There, he, Jerry Bailey and Julie Krone have filled the void left by the retirement of such riding greats as Angel Cordero Jr.

"Mike was reluctant to go to New York," Adika said. "But after a lot of prodding and pleading he went, and to say the least, it has all worked out. It's called being in the right place at the right time."

Jimmy Croll, who trains Holy Bull, said Smith's riding has improved greatly in just the past two years. "He has gained a lot of composure," Croll said. "That comes from experience and riding a lot of good horses. He's a good, cool rider, doesn't panic. In that regard, he reminds me of Craig Perret, who has a knack for keeping his mounts out of trouble. I've even seen it with how Mike has ridden Holy Bull this year. He has ridden each race with more confidence. And, believe me, that makes a difference."

Adds fellow rider Chris McCarron: "Mike's just an all-around good kid. He rides strong and aggressive, and he's got a good head on his shoulders."

Smith's forbearance and self-control have been put to the test in the past two Triple Crowns.

It was Smith who was aboard Prairie Bayou when he won the 1993 Preakness and then unceremoniously jumped off him when the horse broke down and subsequently was destroyed in the Belmont Stakes.

This year, Smith was aboard Holy Bull when the colt broke slowly from the starting gate and was the dismally beaten favorite in the Kentucky Derby. The horse subsequently missed the rest of the Triple Crown, although he since has won four Grade I stakes.

He said his ride on Holy Bull in his last start, the Woodward Stakes, when he beat Devil His Due by five lengths, "was awesome. There are just no words to describe it."

Smith said that although he doesn't ride full-time at Laurel and has not been on the majority of his Million mounts, he anticipates no problems.

"I've ridden at Laurel before," said Smith, who won the 1990 Barbara Fritchie Handicap and has ridden in the Washington D.C. International. "The trainers will tell me all about their horses before the race and I'll get a chance to feel the horses out in the post parade. Then if they've got what it takes to win, they will show it."

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