Friday, November 2, 2012
Updated: November 3, 3:22 AM ET
The past could not catch up with Smith
The 2012 Triple Crown ended about five months ago, but for jockey Mike Smith, the misfortunes of spring had to seem centuries ago as he reveled in a brilliant fall afternoon in California.
Sitting proudly aboard the victorious Royal Delta after Friday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, he took a handful of flowers from his filly's victory garland and tossed them into the air. As they floated down on him, he looked up to the sky with a golden smile brighter than the sunshine above.
It was a good day for Mike Smith.
Maybe not his best day. He did ride Zenyatta, after all. But a very good and fulfilling day nonetheless.
He had just registered a record-breaking 16th Breeders' Cup win, guiding the favored Royal Delta to a second straight Ladies' Classic victory in a quite unexpected manner.
When Questing, the expected pacesetter, showed no interest in running and was soon pulled up, Smith seized the initiative with gusto, taking Royal Delta, who prefers to stalk the leaders, to the front on a speed-favoring strip and never looking back until he crossed the finish line a length and a half ahead.
In the course of that gamble, the two-time Eclipse Award winner pushed Royal Delta through demanding early fractions of 45.81 seconds for the opening half-mile. No horse had ever reeled off a fraction that fast and won the Ladies' Classic -- much less do so with the caliber of the opposition that was waiting to pounce on the champion 3-year-old filly of a year ago.
As Royal Delta galloped along, behind her were two undefeated fillies with a combined 16-for-16 record -- 10-for-10 Awesome Feather and 6-for-6 My Miss Aurelia. There were three other 2012 Grade 1 winners in the field of eight, making it the best field the championship race had ever seen.
And turning for home, there was Royal Delta and Smith with a bull's-eye on his back. Just as he was aboard Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and was caught both times by I'll Have Another. Just as he was aboard Paynter when Union Rags rallied inside of him to capture the Belmont Stakes.
But this time, when My Miss Aurelia and Include Me Out took dead aim at Royal Delta in the stretch, Smith had more than enough horse left and masterfully guided her to the finish line.
In the final furlong of the mile-and-an-eighth test, neither My Miss Aurelia, the runner-up, nor Include Me Out, who was third, could make up an inch on the Bill Mott-trained daughter of Empire Maker.
The grand victory that slipped away from Smith in the Triple Crown was signed, sealed and delivered by a 47-year-old Hall of Fame rider who joyously exorcised the nasty demons of spring.
"This is one of the greatest days of my life," Smith said in a Reuters report. "I felt so confident at the first turn and I felt confident the rest of the way. [Royal Delta] is a true champion."
The victory gave Royal Delta another Breeders' Cup win but her first without an asterisk. A year ago, when Royal Delta was victorious at Churchill Downs, noticeably absent from the field was eventual Horse of the Year Havre de Grace. After beating Royal Delta by 8 1/4 lengths in the Beldame, Havre de Grace elected to tangle with the boys in the richer and longer Breeders' Cup Classic.
This time no one was AWOL. All of the top fillies and mares in training took on Royal Delta and Smith, who had nothing to second-guess in terms of his ride or the talent of the horse he was aboard.
Nothing, not even the past, was catching Mike Smith on this majestic day.