Fans might think Mike Smith tipped trainer Bob Baffert’s hand in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday by opting to ride highly-regarded 3-year-old McKinzie instead of the more proven West Coast. That might not necessarily be the case.
Smith suggested his decision to ride McKinzie was based more on what the future might hold than what the present might bring.
“It was a really tough decision for me to choose him over West Coast. West Coast is extremely talented and could easily be in the winner’s circle that day,” Smith said. “But it’s going to be his last race whereas McKinzie is going to run all of next year, the good Lord willing, and there is a lot of fun stuff that could happen.”
Baffert noted that Gary and Mary West, who own West Coast, are interested in giving him one last start beyond the Classic, in the $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park. Whether or not he goes on to that race, the time for his retirement to Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, Ky., is drawing near.
There is the chance that McKinzie, more highly regarded than eventual undefeated Triple Crown winner Justify when this eventful season began, is just beginning to scratch the surface of what he can do. According to Smith, he did not want to risk losing the mount for the long haul.
“If someone else was to jump up and win the Breeders’ Cup Classic with McKinzie,” Smith said, “I don’t think Bob would take him off.”
Smith noted that McKinzie, a son of Street Sense, and West Coast, sired by Flatter, offer more similarities than differences.
“Both are very handy. They can both be forward or both sit off the pace, which is a good thing,” the Hall of Fame rider said. “If they were to both jump [from the starting gate] equally, I would say McKinzie would be the quicker of the two.”
If McKinzie is indeed quicker on Saturday at Churchill Downs, West Coast counters that with more seasoning. He emerged as the Eclipse Award winner as the leading 3-year-old male last year, capping an excellent campaign by running third to Gun Runner and stablemate Collected in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
West Coast, to be ridden for the first time by John Velazquez, has finished second in all three of his starts this year. He kept the best of company in the Pegasus, the Dubai World Cup and, most recently, when he came in 2 ¼ lengths behind Classic favorite Accelerate for Smith in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes on Sept. 29 at Santa Anita following an extended layoff.
McKinzie also distinguished himself after a prolonged period of racing inactivity when Smith guided him to a 1 ¾-length victory in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 22 at Parx Racing. He was competing for the first time since March 10 due to what was described as a leg injury.
Both performances were reminders of Baffert’s extraordinary ability to have horses primed for top efforts with little or no recent racing. In a training feat that will long be remembered, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah rebounded from an upset loss in the Aug. 29 Travers at Saratoga and trained up to a smashing Classic triumph at Keeneland in 2015.
“He’s just brilliant at it. It’s the works that you use coming into these kinds of races,” Smith said. “He’ll work them and he’ll put good horses in front of them where they pick it up and they finish and they gallop out strong. They have the foundation. They have the work put into them. Bob just has a knack for it.”
Baffert seems to understand how hard each horse can be pushed in training. But how?
“It’s fun to watch and to tell you what it is, I couldn’t honestly tell you,” Smith said. “I guess that is what makes him a genius.”
Baffert thinks he has benefitted greatly from his Quarter-Horse background. He said of his preparation of McKinzie and West Coast for the Classic with just one prep, “It’s not by design. Sometimes you are forced into it. It’s not that difficult. I enjoy the challenge. But you need the horse.”