John Clay

He rides two of this year’s best Kentucky Derby horses. Which one should he choose?

Fans lined up outside Liquor Barn in Beaumont Center for Justify bottle

Fans lined up outside the Liquor Barn in Beaumont Center in Lexington for the Maker's Mark bottle commemorating Justify's Triple Crown. Jockey Mike Smith was on hand to sign bottles, which went on sale at 9 a.m. Friday.
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Fans lined up outside the Liquor Barn in Beaumont Center in Lexington for the Maker's Mark bottle commemorating Justify's Triple Crown. Jockey Mike Smith was on hand to sign bottles, which went on sale at 9 a.m. Friday.

Mike Smith might have 99 problems, but having a really good horse to ride in the Kentucky Derby is not one.

In fact, the Hall of Fame jockey has two horses.

Here’s the real problem: Smith can only ride one.

Two weeks ago, the chosen one appeared to be Roadster, whom Smith rode to an impressive win for trainer Bob Baffert in the Santa Anita Derby. But then last Saturday, there was Smith hitting the finish line first again in a Grade 1 Derby prep, this time aboard Omaha Beach for trainer Richard Mandella in the Arkansas Derby.

So now with the “Run for the Roses” less than three weeks away, Smith has an important decision to make, one that will influence not just the race but which jockeys ride which horses come May 4.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” the 53-year-old rider admitted Sunday.

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Mike Smith, who won the Triple Crown last year with Justify, rode Omaha Beach to victory in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park last Saturday. Coady Photography

What makes the question so interesting is there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two ultra-talented possibilities, both of whom run for California-based Hall of Fame trainers.

After starting out as a grass horse, Omaha Beach has won three of his four races since being moved to dirt. Two of those wins came on a sloppy track, including the Arkansas Derby victory in which the son of War Front held off Improbable in the stretch to win by a length. That came four weeks after Omaha Beach won a division of the Rebel Stakes by a nose over Game Winner, last year’s 2-year-old champion.

Both Game Winner and Improbable are trained by Baffert, who will be looking to tie legendary trainer Ben Jones with his sixth Derby win. And Baffert’s best bet may be Roadster, who was highly regarded as a 2-year-old before a third-place finish in the Del Mar Futurity. A throat operation forced Roadster into a six-month layoff before he won an allowance on March 1 and the Santa Anita Derby on April 6.

So which horse will Smith pick? Roadster appears to be the favorite, thanks to Smith’s relationship with Baffert. After all, Smith was aboard Justify last year when the lightly raced phenom became the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner. He also rode Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate for Baffert. And Smith has ridden Roadster in all four his career starts, while he’s ridden Omaha Beach in just the last two races.

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Mike Smith, the jockey who won the Belmont Stakes atop Justify, celebrated with the Belmont Stakes trophy with trainer Bob Baffert and Baffert’s son, Bode, at Belmont Park on June 9, 2018. Victor J. Blue New York Times

What appears more certain is that Smith will take his time to make his decision. After all, what if the horse he chooses is injured or becomes ill and can’t run in the Derby? Surely the trainer of the other horse will have already picked an alternate jockey.

If Smith does pick Roadster, Mandella could turn to Flavien Prat, who rode Omaha Beach in each of his first five starts, including the colt’s dirt debut when he finished second in a maiden special weight race at Santa Anita. Prat jumped off of Omaha Beach to ride Gunmetal Gray in the same division of the Rebel. Omaha Beach won. Gunmetal Gray finished fourth and is currently injured, leaving Prat without a Derby mount.

But what if Smith picks Omaha Beach? Baffert has already lost Improbable’s jockey, Jose Ortiz, who has chosen to ride Wood Memorial winner Tacitus in the Derby. If Smith bails, Baffert will be scrambling to find another jockey for Roadster. With Todd Pletcher down to a pair of Derby long shots in Cutting Humor and Spinoff, might Baffert try to poach John Velazquez from Pletcher?

Baffert could go with Drayden Van Dyke, who had ridden Improbable in each of his first four races before being replaced by Ortiz in the Arkansas Derby. But when Ortiz chose Tacitus for Louisville, Baffert opted not to go back to Van Dyke and instead picked Ortiz’s older brother, Irad.

It all comes down to Mike Smith, who said he will sit down with his agent and make a decision about which talented 3-year-old he will ride in the 145th Kentucky Derby.

“It’s a lovely decision to have,” said Smith in Arkansas.

We should all have such problems.

Kentucky Derby

When: May 4

Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville

TV: NBC

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