Sidelines with John Clay

In a mild surprise, Mike Smith makes his Kentucky Derby choice

The Kentucky Derby is still 18 days away, but we’ve already had a mild upset.

No sooner had I posted my column about jockey Mike Smith having to choose between top Derby contenders Omaha Beach and Roadster than the 53-year-old Hall of Famer made his choice.

According to Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form, Smith has chosen Omaha Beach.

That’s a bit of a surprise considering Roadster, whom Smith rode to victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, is trained by Bob Baffert. The team of Baffert/Smith won last year’s Derby with Justify, who went on to become just the 13th horse to accomplish racing’s Triple Crown.

Omaha Beach, whom Smith rode to victory in the Arkansas Derby on April 13, is trained by Richard Mandella, who is 0-for-6 in the Derby. Both Baffert and Mandella are Hall of Fame trainers, but Mandella has never finished better than fifth in the Derby. Meanwhile, Baffert needs one more Kentucky Derby victory to tie the legendary Ben Jones with six wins.

Based on his three straight victories, however, Omaha Beach is the likely betting favorite come May 4. Owned by Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farm, Omaha Beach is No. 1 in both the Horse Racing Nation media poll and the NTRA poll.

Jockey Florent Geroux tweeted that he will be aboard Roadster for the Kentucky Derby.

Smith has won the Derby twice, first aboard Giacomo in 2005 and then aboard Justify last year. He has finished second three times — Proud Citizen in 2002, Lion Heart in 2004 and Bodemeister in 2012.

Geroux has ridden in just three Derbys, finishing 3rd aboard Gun Runner in 2016, 11th on Hence in 2017 and 17th on Noble Indy last year. He had ridden Dream Maker in the Derby preps for trainer Mark Casse and owner John C. Oxley, but the colt did not earn enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby after finishing 13th in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes.

Baffert is expected to saddle two other horses for the Derby. Game Winner, last year’s 2-year-old champion, will be ridden by Joel Rosario. Improbable, who finished second in the Arkansas Derby to Omaha Beach, will be ridden by Irad Ortiz, who replaces his brother, Jose Ortiz. The latter Ortiz opted to ride Wood Memorial winner Tacitus.

Here is the list of jockeys who have won the last 20 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

  • 2018 Justify - Mike Smith
  • 2017 Always Dreaming - John Velazquez
  • 2016 Nyquist - Mario Gutierrez
  • 2015 American Pharoah - Victor Espinoza
  • 2014 California Chrome - Victor Espinoza
  • 2013 Orb - Joel Rosario
  • 2012 I’ll Have Another - Mario Gutierrez
  • 2011 Animal Kingdom - John Velazquez
  • 2010 Super Saver - Calvin Borel
  • 2009 Mine That Bird - Calvin Borel
  • 2008 Big Brown - Kent Desormeaux
  • 2007 Street Sense - Calvin Borel
  • 2006 Barbaro - Edgar Prado
  • 2005 Giacomo - Mike Smith
  • 2004 Smarty Jones - Stewart Elliott
  • 2003 Funny Cide - Jose Santos
  • 2002 War Emblem - Victor Espinoza
  • 2001 Monarchos - Jorge Chavez
  • 2000 Fusaichi Pegasus - Kent Desormeaux
  • 1999 Charismatic - Chris Antley

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