Dale Romans, a man of rhythm and blues, responded to the news that Joel Rosario would not be riding Dullahan in the defense of his Pacific Classic title by tapping his inner Joe Tex and declaring, “No one monkey stops my show.”
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Good thing, too, because the show must go on, and on, and on, whether a particular jockey stays tied to a horse for now or forever – forever being a relative term.
The latest round of high-stakes musical saddles was a by-product of Royal Delta’s impressive victory under Mike Smith in the Delaware Handicap on July 20. Smith was so smitten by the mare’s performance that he decided to stick with her for the $600,000 Personal Ensign at Saratoga on Aug. 25, thereby abandoning the mount on Game On Dude for the $1 million Pacific Classic the same day. Agent Ron Anderson was quick to fill the void, turning down Dullahan and committing Rosario for Game On Dude. Romans, hardly moping, picked up Rafael Bejarano for the Pacific Classic.
The whole deal comes off as the agonies of the rich and famous, given the fact that Rosario (first), Bejarano (fifth), and Smith (seventh) are among the nation’s top 10 riders, and the trainers involved are Hall of Famers Bob Baffert (Game On Dude) and Bill Mott (Royal Delta), along with Eclipse Award winner Romans, all of them serving at the pleasure of owners built to endure such turbulence.
Still, you like to at least see somebody sweat, like Brad Pegram, Smith’s agent, and the man who held all the cards but could play only one.
“There was no right answer,” Pegram said. “It was an impossible decision. Either way, it was going to be a lose or a win. It’s 50-50 whether you’re right or you’re wrong.”
This was an agent in all his suffering glory, presented with one key and a choice of two bags guaranteed full of money, without being told which bag the key opened. Ron Anderson, who won national championships with Jerry Bailey and Garrett Gomez before taking on Rosario, was content to lie in wait, knowing what Pegram faced.
“When I walked out of Mott’s barn at Saratoga, Ron was standing right there,” Pegram said. “He gave me that smile that said, ‘I’m on the one you’re not.’ ”
Pegram, having cast his die, responded with a wave that came up four fingers light. It’s safe to say Anderson had Baffert’s number on speed-dial and punched it. As for Pegram’s client, Smith was likewise conflicted.
“It was probably the toughest decision like that I ever had to make,” Smith said. “I was sick to my stomach. I mean, you get the opportunity to ride a horse like Game On Dude, you sure don’t want to be taken off him. But my obligation was to Royal Delta even before the Delaware Handicap.”
It should be no surprise that Rosario and Smith are at the center of the story. Rosario, 28, has leveraged his success in California to rule the national stage with earnings of $14.8 million by his 913 mounts, entering the week. Smith, who turns 48 on Aug. 10, has made an art form of maximum impact from minimal playing time, with $7.7 million in mount earnings this year from just 211 rides. If Mariano Rivera were a jockey, he’d be Mike Smith.
Not bad for a Hall of Famer who figured he’d reached the end of all reasonable expectations upon the retirement of his most famous partner, Zenyatta, at the end of 2010.
“I think I kind of felt that way more than anyone,” Smith said. “What do you do to replace her, a mare so irreplaceable?”
For Smith and Pegram, the answer was taking flight. They have crafted a business model few jockeys would dare attempt, pressing the envelope of the mercenary athlete ready to go anywhere, anytime for the right kind of ride.
Last weekend’s bicoastal sweep of the Jim Dandy with Palace Malice at Saratoga and the Bing Crosby with Points Offthebench at Del Mar was only the latest in Smith’s giddy tour of the 2013 American stakes landscape.
Among those 211 rides have been wins in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Charles Town Classic with Game On Dude, the Ashland and American Oaks on Emollient, the Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks on Princess of Sylmar, and the Belmont Stakes with Palace Malice.
“I feel like I’ve been on the go fairly steady for the last five or six months,” said Smith, who calls California home.
The idea of almost weekly commercial flights in today’s air-travel climate is daunting, even if you can curl up in a first-class seat. Smith has it down to a science.
“I treat a plane flight like a mini-vacation,” Smith said. “I take my neck pillow, some music, a little something to read, and I’m out. Then they wake me up and serve me breakfast. I get off, ride a race, get back on, and they serve me dinner, then get back home and do it all again. I could turn it around and make myself feel tired just thinking about it. But really, I feel very privileged.”
It helps that earlier this year, Smith underwent sinus surgery.
“I had a deviated septum and a big polyp growing in there – I was miserable all the time,” Smith said. “I could hardly get any rest at all, even in my own bed, because I couldn’t breathe.
“I get dizzy from all the air I get now,” Smith added with a laugh. “I feel like a different person, and I know that’s played a big part in me being able to travel so well.”
With his commitment to Royal Delta in the Personal Ensign, Smith is looking at another big weekend when he rides Palace Malice the day before in the $1 million Travers. But that’s not until Aug. 24-25.
What’s he going to do until then?
“Dickie Small used to put Concern on a van and drive him around before a race, he liked shipping so much,” Smith said, referring to the heroes of the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic. “Concern would come charging off the van, ready to run. I might have to take a little flight somewhere between now and then, just to stay sharp.”