Sidelines with John Clay

Was jockey change on eve of Kentucky Derby a dishonorable deal or a smart move?

For all the pomp and circumstance, the Mint Juleps and the fancy hats, the Kentucky Derby is still a business.

Corey Lanerie probably already knew that, but he was reminded the hard way Friday when it was announced that owner Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing and trainer Todd Pletcher were taking the Louisville-based jockey off of Cutting Humor and replacing him with Mike Smith for Saturday’s 145th running.

A two-time Kentucky Derby winner, Smith had lost his mount when Omaha Beach was scratched after it was discovered Wednesday that the morning-line favorite was suffering from an entrapped epiglottis. Smith had chosen Omaha Beach over Roadster after riding the two horses to wins in important Derby preps — Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6; Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby on April 13.

Jockey Corey Lanerie was removed from Cutting Humor in favor of Mike Smith the day before the Kentucky Derby.

Friday’s news was greeted with cries of “dirty pool” and other harsher judgments on social media. This is the Kentucky Derby! How dare Lanerie, whose wife Shantel lost her battle with breast cancer last June, be yanked from his mount less than 36 hours before the world’s most famous race!

But let’s be real here. The object is to win the Kentucky Derby. And Smith is a Hall of Fame jockey who rode Justify to the Triple Crown just last year. If he’s not the best rider in the sport right now, he’s certainly close. And at age 53, he’s ridden in about every big race imaginable, including Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races. There are not many owners and trainers out there who wouldn’t want Mike Smith on their horse in the sport’s biggest race.

That’s not a knock on the 44-year-old Lanerie, who has won multiple riding titles at Churchill Downs. But Lanerie has had just four Kentucky Derby mounts — 2014 with Harry’s Holiday; 2016 with Mo Tom; 2017 with Lookin At Lee and 2018 with Promises Fulfilled. His best finish was second with Lookin At Lee for trainer Steve Asmussen.

None of those rides were for Pletcher, who Saturday will have a horse — two this year with Cutting Humor and Spinoff — in the Derby for the 16th straight year. And Lanerie has never ridden Cutting Humor, the Sunland Derby winner. John Velazquez, Pletcher’s regular rider, had ridden Cutting Humor his last three races. But Velazquez chose to stick with Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor, trained by Shug McGaughey, for Saturday.

The choice of Lanerie had probably more to do with Wolf, a Louisville native. But Wolf also has a history with Smith. Starlight Racing was part of the ownership group that raced Justify last year.

“Obviously, Jack and Mike have some history together,” said Pletcher on Thursday when asked about the possibility of Smith riding Cutting Humor.

It is true that Bob Baffert opted not to bump Florent Geroux off Roadster when Smith became available. But Baffert and Geroux have a history, as well. The 32-year-old has ridden several Baffert horses, including Restoring Hope in last year’s Belmont — sparking a controversy — and routinely works Baffert’s horses.

“It was never discussed,” said Baffert on Thursday when asked about a possible jockey switch. “I wouldn’t do that to Flo.”

Pletcher and Wolf would do that to Lanerie, and they did. But, hey, it’s Mike Smith! You can’t much blame them.

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