2012: Mike Smith-Best in the Breeders' Cup
This was in the making for twenty years.
Back in 1992, Mike Smith scored his first Breeders' Cup victory in the Mile aboard the talented turf horse Lure. The two teamed up for a successful title defense the following year, and that began an impressive run in which Smith captured a total of eight Breeders' Cup races during the 1992-1997 seasons.
A lull followed, but Smith added to his tally with a double at Arlington in 2002. He would have to wait until the end of the decade to further his count, taking three races between the 2008 and 2009 renewals (one of them being the highly popular 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic win with Zenyatta).
After going winless in 2010, Smith came back to win the 2011 Sprint and Classic, putting him level with Jerry Bailey for the all-time record in Breeders' Cup victories. Given how he drew even with his fellow Hall of Fame rider in the Classic, that meant Smith would have to wait a year for the chance to take the record outright.
Fast forward to 2012. The Breeders' Cup was back in Southern California, Smith's home circuit. The site was Santa Anita, which played host to a raucous crowd when Smith and Zenyatta beat the boys in the classic three years earlier. Though Queen Z had since been retired, Smith was still making trips to the winner's circle. And everyone was wondering if he would do so over the course of the two day Breeders' Cup for what would be one of his greatest triumphs.On day one of the event, Smith had three opportunities for his 16th Breeders' Cup win. He scored a third aboard Atigun in the Marathon, and then was off the board in fifth with Lady of Shamrock in the Filly and Mare Turf. His final mount of the day came in the Ladies' Classic, the main event for the Friday program, and Smith had quite a horse underneath him.
Royal Delta, a dark bay or brown daughter of Empire Maker, was the defending champion of the event. She also possessed tremendous class. A multiple graded stakes winner, the Bill Mott trainee displayed admirable consistency as she had been third or better in all but two starts before the 2012 Ladies' Classic, and her 2011 campaign netted her the Eclipse Award for Outstanding 3-Year-Old Filly.
Picking up where she left off as a sophomore, Royal Delta had enjoyed a fantastic 2012. Outside of a ninth place finish in the Dubai World Cup, the elegant filly had been first or second in every other start. In the irons for much of that year was Smith, who piloted Royal Delta to graded stakes wins across the country. Suffice to say, the rider knew the filly well.
The public did, too. They saw no one beating Royal Delta, making her the clear favorite over her seven opponents at less than 9-5. Only Awesome Feather came close in the wagering at just over 2-1.
The defending champion wasted little time getting to the front, leading before she reached the first turn of Santa Anita's main track. She maintained that advantage through splits of 22.69 and 45.81 for the half-mile as she held on to a small advantage over Love and Pride. Behind them came Grade I winners My Miss Aurelia, Include Me Out, and Awesome Feather, that trio forming a line. Class Included and Grace Hall, a recent Grade III and Grade II champion, respectively, filled out that pack. In last was Questing, who slowed up and stopped on the backstretch but was thankfully reported to be fine after the race.
Love and Pride stayed with Royal Delta as they began the final turn, disallowing the leader to increase her cushion. But Smith began urging his filly, perhaps sensing Love and Pride and others might unleash an early run. Royal Delta obliged, and the tempo remained speedy as six panels went by in 1:09.80. Everyone in the pack stayed fairly close together, separated by a few lengths. With the quarter-pole immediately in view, the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic started to reach its crescendo, the outcome still not known as the spectators began to offer vocal support.
Smith continued to ask for more from Royal Delta as they traversed the rich brown surface that was Santa Anita's main track. Other jockeys began calling their horses to summon more run. The one who responded the strongest was local horse Include Me Out, and she moved to the outside with Joe Talamo, powering past Love and Pride to battle with the frontrunner and My Miss Aurelia. Royal Delta kept to the inside, still in command. But Include Me Out was not relenting, and neither was My Miss Aurelia. The Ladies' Classic was down to those three at the eighth pole.
My Miss Aurelia fought back, taking second from Include Me Out. Royal Delta stayed in front by over a length, her stride powerful as she ran near the rail. She seemed to radiate an air of calmness about her despite the frenzied crowd and the competition behind her. It was as if no one was around. She concentrated on running and nothing else, doing so with palpable focus.
It paid off for her. Neither My Miss Aurelia or Include Me Out could catch up in the waning seconds, and Royal Delta earned her place in Breeders' Cup history with her second consecutive win in the Ladies' Classic with a time of 1:48.80. That put her next to Bayakoa, who scored back-to-back victories in 1989 and 1990.
And she became the horse who Mike Smith rode to achieve a new record for Breeders' Cup wins among jockeys with 16. Having ridden in thousands of races before Royal Delta even debuted, Smith knew exactly what to do in this race. After Royal Delta took the lead (an unusual tactic for her), Smith kept her to the inside and urged her when she needed it. His ride exemplified being mindful of time in a race. He made all the right cues, honed from years on the big tracks of Thoroughbred racing, and that experience brought him a red-letter win in his outstanding career.
That also had some past ties, given how Smith and Mott had teamed up before for major stakes scores. Only two years earlier they had captured the Belmont with Drosselmeyer, and the three returned in 2011 to take the Breeders' Cup Classic. It was just meant to be that Smith and Mott would team up again for a recordbreaking day.
Smith has not let up since the 2012 Ladies' Classic. He has continued to be a powerful presence at the year-end event, his win count growing to an astounding 26 at the end of the 2010's.
That is emblematic of the dedication he has given to his craft, which has not let up. And it will not be surprising if Smith reaches 30 Breeders' Cup victories in the next few years.
Why not? The Breeders' Cup is his domain.