Santa Anita's Great Race Place, with lots of workers and media on hand Monday, was abuzz. Down the street a couple of blocks, having lunch and itching to get to this weekend's Breeders' Cup, jockey Mike Smith was aglow.
"Boy, I'm mounted well," he said.
They will run six Breeders' Cup races Friday and nine more Saturday, with a total purse of $25.5 million. Like the money, story lines will be in abundance. Smith is best positioned to be a main character.
It isn't just that he will ride in eight races, or that any of several rides could produce a treasured jockey record. That would be a 16th Breeders' Cup victory, one more than the 15 he now shares with the retired Jerry Bailey.
"That's a big one, one you really want," Smith says.
Bailey will be nearby and accessible, with a headset on and an NBC microphone in front of him. That's where he was last year too at Churchill Downs, after Smith booted home Amazombie in the Sprint for his 14th victory.
"They hooked me up and I was talking to him on my horse," Smith says. "I was kind of kidding him. 'Just one more,' I said. He knew."
While Bailey digested the significance, Smith, aboard a 14-1 shot named Drosselmeyer, got favorite and leader Game On Dude in his sights on the home stretch in the Breeders' Cup Classic. When Smith got there, much of the attention went to the obvious titillation angle. Smith had outraced his former girlfriend, Game On Dude's jockey, Chantal Sutherland, for the upset win.
It was an angle difficult to avoid. Their breakup had been neither amicable, nor quiet. The summer after it happened, Del Mar had asked them to participate in a match race, "Battle of the Sexes," an obvious publicity stunt that both went along with to boost interest in racing. But Sutherland, who recently got married and retired from riding, got in a wonderful parting dig during the event's run-up.
"I found a perfect horse for Mike to ride," she said. "His name is Liar Liar."
So, somewhat lost in the Drosselmeyer buzz was the landmark, record-sharing 15th riding title for Smith.
The record-breaking 16th might give Smith a better symbolic pedestal on which to stand; one that, with time, could divert biographers from other semi-controversial, fascinating moments in his career.
It is tough to gauge whether Smith's biggest moment in the Breeders' Cup — maybe his career — was a spine-tingling victory aboard the fabled Zenyatta at Santa Anita in the 2009 Classic, or the loss by a nose in the same race at Churchill Downs the next year. Both increased the legendary status of Zenyatta, while the loss raised eyebrows about Smith's ride. Blame's victory ruined what could have been a perfect 20-0 career for Zenyatta.
Zenyatta had always started last and stayed there way past time when it appeared she had any chance to win. And she always somehow did. But when her typical homestretch slingshot move fell just short at Churchill in 2010, Smith took the blame for starting her too late.
Then, in this year's Triple Crown season, Smith rode Bob Baffert's Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. In both, he finished second to strong-finishing I'll Have Another. Then, in the Belmont, with Bodemeister not running and I'll Have Another also out, Smith rode Baffert's Paynter and had him in nice shape on the lead when he felt a charge from his right rear. He gave Paynter a couple of taps with his left hand to stop that challenge and that opened room at the rail for Union Rags to squeeze past and win.
It was unlikely Smith could have seen both horses, but afterward, he blamed himself.
"I've always been that way," says Smith, who is tougher than even his harshest critics. "I get on the horse, I take a lot of the responsibility. I work hard, but so do a lot of people just to get the horse to the race. My job is to get it done."
A 16th Breeders' Cup win would be a distinguishing, permanent symbol of excellence for Smith, one perhaps even bigger than the 5,000-win plateau he reached April 7.
"The ups and the downs are what make racing," Smith says. "You win all the time, it's boring. You lose all the time, you don't want to keep playing. In 30 minutes, you can go from hero to chump."
Smith will ride 9/2 morning line Atigun in the Breeders' Cup Marathon; 12-1 Lady of Shamrock in the Filly and Mare Turf; 20-1 Rumor in the Filly and Mare Sprint; 20-1 Mizdirection in the Turf Sprint; 4-1 Amazombie in the Sprint; 15-1 Suggestive Boy in the Mile; 9/5 defending champion Royal Delta in the Ladies Classic, and 8-1 Mucho Macho Man in the Classic.
The Classic is always the fascination, often for more reasons than the $5-million purse.
Mucho Macho Man is trained by Kathy Ritvo, who had a heart transplant four years ago.
"She's a special lady," Smith says. "She just wanted to be around for her daughter's graduation, and now, here she is, running a horse in the Classic."
Then there was his first Breeders' Cup Classic win, aboard Skip Away in 1997 at Hollywood Park.
"Never rode him before," Smith says. "Sonny Hine was the trainer and he had to pay a $480,000 supplemental fee just to enter. So we get to the paddock and he is giving me a leg up and he says, " 'Don't forget, I put out $480,000 on this horse.'
"You talk about pressure.… After that, I can handle anything."
Especially a hookup into Bailey's headset, after win No. 16.