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Mike Smith chooses to ride McKinzie in Breeders' Cup Classic

Mike Smith chooses to ride McKinzie in Breeders' Cup Classic
Jockey Mike Smith guides McKinzie to a win in the $100,000 Sham Stakes on Jan. 6 at Santa Anita. (Benoit Photo)

When you are Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, one of your biggest problems can often be deciding which great horse to ride.

For the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday, he had such a decision to make.

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Does he ride 3-year-old McKinzie, whom he’s ridden to four wins in five races? Or does he ride 4-year-old West Coast, whom he’s ridden to three wins in four races?

He made the pragmatic decision.

“It was a tough decision for me to choose McKinzie over West Coast,” Smith said. “West Coast is extremely talented and could very easily be in the winner’s circle. But it’s going to be his last race and McKinzie is going to run all next year.”

Smith was almost right. West Coast, the 5-1 second choice, could run one more time before retirement in the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream in January if he does well Saturday. McKinzie is the third choice at 6-1 behind 5-2 morning-line favorite Accelerate.

“He’s training better than he ever has,” Smith said of McKinzie. “He’s come off the Pennsylvania Derby and really stepped his game up. … I think there is a lot of fun stuff that could happen to him as well.”

McKinzie and West Coast have a lot in common. Both are trained by Bob Baffert and had long layoffs before their most recent race. And both missed the Triple Crown races as 3-year-olds.

McKinzie was pulled from the Kentucky Derby trail after finishing first in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. He was moved to second for interference with Bolt d’Oro. His win in the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 22 was his first race in six months.

West Coast was given a long layoff after finishing second in the Dubai World Cup. He also had six months off before finishing second to Accelerate in the Awesome Again Stakes on Sept. 29 at Santa Anita.

“Both are very similar, even in the way they look,” Smith said. “They are both very handy. They can both be forwardly placed. Or they can both sit off the pace. If they were to both jump quickly, I think McKinzie would be the quicker of the two. But in saying that, you could ask West Coast [to go to the front], like he did winning the Travers [last year], and he could be on the lead.”

Baffert doesn’t seem concerned about the lack of recent races for either horse.

“It’s not by design,” Baffert said. “Sometimes you’re forced to do it. I think it goes back to my quarter horse training days and getting them ready for the big race. I don’t think it’s that difficult. I enjoy the challenge. I feel comfortable the way I do things.

“You just want a sound, healthy horse that’s pretty fit and you’ll be all right. You don’t need a lot of races.”

Both horses will have to be in top form to beat Accelerate, who has won five of six races this year, including a California superfecta of the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup, Pacific Classic and Awesome Again Stakes, all Grade 1 races.

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Missing from the Classic is Triple Crown winner Justify, who was retired after his sixth race, the Belmont Stakes.

“I’m looking at it like Justify is passing the baton on,” Smith said. “[McKinzie] was the hype and, of course, got hurt. Justify came along and did what he did and that was incredible. What a way to end the year to have it passed on to him and see if we can pull this off.”

Baffert seems to like West Coast’s chances a little better if for no other reason than experience.

“I think West Coast looks fantastic,” Baffert said. “I really like the way he’s going into this race. He looks better than he did last year and he still ran a big race” finishing third in the Classic.

“McKinzie is still a young horse. He’s lightly raced, so it might be a little tougher for him. The raw talent is there. He’s fast. We’ll see how far we can take him.”

As for West Coast, it’s not like he’s getting a second-tier jockey. Hall of Famer John Velazquez, the all-time leading rider in money earned, picked up the mount.

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