Nearly two weeks after the Kentucky Derby, Mike Smith still can't believe what he saw Mine That Bird and Calvin Borel do at Churchill Downs. He also can't believe that he, not Borel, will be riding the Derby winner Saturday in the 134th Preakness at Pimlico Race Course.
For the first time in history, a jockey will jump off a Derby winner to ride another horse - and a filly at that - in the Preakness. And thanks to Borel's decision, Smith could get the ride of his life in the Preakness, a race he last won in 1993 aboard Prairie Bayou.
When Smith was reached by cell phone this week and asked about the amazing switch, all he could do initially was laugh.
"You know, you'd never think that would happen, would you?" he said. "My thoughts are just like yours. Wow!"
In the Derby, Mine That Bird roared from last to first, passing 18 prime Thoroughbreds while charging along the rail through holes so small that many eyes couldn't see them.
Last week, when Jess Jackson, the new owner of the filly Rachel Alexandra, said he would enter her in the Preakness, Borel said he would ride her.
Borel, of course, has a history with Rachel Alexandra. He has ridden her to five straight victories, called her the best horse he has ever ridden and had a commitment to her previous owners that Jackson wanted to maintain.
"Calvin has spent a lot of time with that filly, an incredible filly, and he'd just won [the Kentucky Oaks] by 20 lengths and won five in a row on her," said Smith, a New Mexico native like many of Mine That Bird's connections. "I can see why he'd want to stay with the filly."
Smith, 42, who won the 2005 Kentucky Derby on Giacomo, another late closer, was thrilled to take Borel's place.
"I'm very excited to have this opportunity," he said. "I know some people think it was kind of a fluke that he won, but when you look at his past performances, he's never really run a bad race.
"I think with the combination of taking him way back and the wet track, it really worked. He's not a big horse, and I think ... not getting him involved in the early pace and not matching strides early really helped him. He obviously has a good turn of foot."
After watching Derby tapes "over and over and over," Smith's conclusion: "It's hard to say something was a fluke when a horse doesn't just beat you, but runs by you the way he did. Unbelievable."
But several trainers say Mine That Bird's trainer, Chip Woolley, "caught lightning in a bottle." Friesan Fire's Larry Jones said Woolley, who wears a cowboy hat, might have pulled a rabbit out of it.
And they do not fail to mention the impact of changing jockeys.
"The horse and Calvin have a rapport," Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. "It could be a setback. Is he [Bird] difficult to ride or push-button?"
Woolley said he thinks his horse is easy but also said he had been trying to get jockeys to ride him the way Borel did for some time without success. Only Borel kept him at the back of the field, relaxed until it was time to run.
"Calvin was a perfect fit for him," Pioneerof the Nile trainer Bob Baffert said. "He's the only one who could have won it for him, the way he rode that horse. He rode him with confidence. He rode to get a piece of the pie, and he got the whole pie."
Woolley said he believes Smith will do a comparable job.
"When Calvin and his agent let us know this was a possibility, we made some calls, did some research and decided on Mike," Woolley said. "He rides patient. The pressure won't get to him because he's been through it all before. He's a great rider with great instincts. I'm not worried."
Smith said the horse looks rider-friendly.
"He liked being in the back," Smith said. "He seemed to like inside, but inside, outside, whatever you want him to do. It looks like driving a car almost. I'm sure we'll be in the back again Saturday, but not as far back because we're going a shorter distance."
Smith has ridden in 10 Preaknesses and won one, but is it fair to expect him to produce the same result as Borel while riding a horse he first planned to meet Friday morning?
"I've been around a long time," Smith said.
"Just being fortunate enough to ride in Triple Crown races teaches you to handle pressure, and I've been fortunate to win. Experience helps.
"With this horse, I've never seen a horse do what he did, so I can understand why people would be skeptical. But I sure hope I get the same result. ... I certainly want to go out there and make the most of it."
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