Mike Smith rode 15-to-1 contender Palace Malice to victory at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday in Elmont, New York, and it was yet another example of the experience and veteran savvy of the Hall of Fame jockey.
Strategic adjustments were undoubtedly necessary after what happened at the Kentucky Derby this year. In that race at Churchill Downs, Palace Malice strode to the front of the pack early on, setting a pace that he could not maintain. He wound up finishing 12th.
After electing not to run him in the Preakness Stakes, trainer Todd Pletcher called on Smith to take the saddle yet again, and it paid off in a big way.
The Daily Racing Form's Jay Privman pointed out how Pletcher expected something big from Palace Malice at some point, and it finally came to fruition on this occasion:
Palace Malice has been highly regarded by Pletcher for months. He finally ran in the afternoon like what they had seen in morning. #belmont— Jay Privman (@DRFPrivman) June 8, 2013
It takes a great jockey to get the job done, though. Even without another competitive race with the horse under his belt, Smith made the necessary changes and played the other 14 horses in the field perfectly.
The competition was no slouch, either. Preakness champion Oxbow was mounted by another Hall of Famer in Gary Stevens, who had a touching exchange with Smith that he discussed after the race, as documented by The Downey Profile:
Mike Smith: "At the three-eighths, Gary said, ‘Go on, little brother. You’re moving better than me.’ And we went on with it, man."— The Downey Profile (@DowneyProfile) June 9, 2013
Also among those figuring prominently into the Run for the Carnations was Orb, with 2013's leading money winner in jockey Joel Rosario, per Equibase.com.
Revolutionary was thought to be Pletcher's best shot of his five entries at the winner's circle given his status as the No. 2 favorite, but he wound up finishing in fourth.
That's quite a formidable set of immediate competitors for Smith to negotiate, yet he did so masterfully.
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Frac Daddy raced out to the early lead from post position No. 1, galloping through the first quarter mile in a whopping 23.11 seconds. That didn't last, as the winning time Palace Malice posted was 2:30.70.
But it was the way Smith guided Palace Malice that made the race so compelling. Orb waited a bit too long to make his late move, while Palace Malice maintained a firm position near the front of the pack throughout.
When the final turn came around, there was still plenty in the tank for the speedy horse, and all Smith had left to do was unleash him.
It was a relatively slow time for Palace Malice, but this wasn't the first such instance for Smith at Belmont Park that resulted in victory. In his prior triumph aboard Drosselmeyer in 2010, he finished in 2:31.57.
Thus, Smith accounts for two of the five slowest winning times in the past 20 years, according to BelmontStakes.com. That methodical style may not be flashy, but that's fine with Smith. It's awfully effective, and it got Pletcher off the skids in Triple Crown races, giving him his first winner in 2013.
At one point afterward, Smith deflected the attention away from himself. He took the opportunity to thank Dogwood Stable and Pletcher for trusting him even after the initial disappointment at Churchill Downs, according to KY Derby Contenders:
Classy Smith thanks owner Dogwood & Pletcher for "sticking with me."— KY Derby Contenders (@DerbyContenders) June 8, 2013
The Belmont Stakes is labeled "The Test of the Champion," and Smith proved for the second time in his career in this race that he is the complete embodiment of a champion jockey.
Note: Race history and statistics for horses and jockeys were obtained from Equibase.com.