Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith has ridden the top handicap horse Game On Dude in his last six races, but on Sunday for the $1-million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, Smith has called an audible.
"It was a very hard decision," he said. "Game On Dude has been very good to me, but I'm on an up-and-coming young star who could be the franchise player for a while."
Smith will ride Shared Belief, an undefeated 3-year-old gelding who has won all five of his races, none by margins of less than 4 1/4 lengths. Shared Belief is a son of Candy Ride, who won the 2003 Pacific Classic after winning his first five races.
Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer and co-owned by radio host Jim Rome, Shared Belief is coming off a triumph in the Los Alamitos Derby on July 5.
Game On Dude has $6,438,893 in career winnings and won last year's Pacific Classic. Trained by Bob Baffert, Game On Dude is particularly tough to beat when not challenged on the lead.
"Both are extremely talented horses," Smith said. "Both could jump up and win in great fashion. Shared Belief is 3, Game On Dude is 7. As far as a longer career from this point on, you go with the younger horse."
A victory by Shared Belief in the 1 1/4 -mile Grade I event could launch quite a debate nearing the end of the racing season as to who is the best 3-year-old in the nation. California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and has returned to training while gearing up for a possible Breeders' Cup Classic appearance on Nov. 1 at Santa Anita.
Who wouldn't want to see the two horses match up in the future? "I'm sure the fans would like that," Hollendorfer said.
Shared Belief drew the No. 11 outside post for Sunday's race and is the 5-2 morning line favorite. Game On Dude, ridden by Martin Garcia, breaks from No. 5 and is 3-1. Majestic Harbor, with Tyler Baze, is the third choice at 9-2.
Whatever happens, it's clear that Smith, who turned 49 on Aug. 10, is having a huge impact this summer at Del Mar. He has won six stakes and seemingly gets better with age. He's certainly in great shape while following a stringent conditioning regimen six days a week.
"The great thing about us [jockeys] is experience means the world," he said. "I have the beautiful horse underneath me that does all the running. All I have to do is the thinking."
Fans still identify Smith as the jockey of Zenyatta, who retired in 2010 with 19 wins in 20 starts.
"I don't think you can go a day without thinking about her," Smith said. "She always crosses my mind, and if she doesn't, a fan brings her up to me. It's great memories. She did so much for our industry. She brought fans to the game that had not been racing fans before. She was a special horse and always will be. I just look forward to getting the opportunity to ride some of her babies."
There will be 11 races on Sunday's card, with the first post at 1 p.m. Besides the Pacific Classic, there's also the $250,000 Del Mar Mile and the $250,000 Pat O'Brien Stakes.