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Smith happy to have derby fans in the stands

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Jockey Mike Smith reacts after guiding Justify to win the Triple Crown at the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes horse race June 9, 2018, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP File Photo/Andres Kudacki)

This year’s 147th Run for the Roses has a different feel to it than last year’s. For one, there were no fans in the stands. Dexter’s Mike Smith said there is life at this year’s Kentucky Derby because fans are being allowed to attend.

Not only that but they are allowed to partake in the festivities all week long. Smith, a two-time winner of the race, is not the favorite this year. He will be riding a horse called Midnight Bourbon trained by Steve Asmussen. The horse finished runner-up in the Louisiana Derby on March 20 at Fair Grounds Race Course, two lengths behind Hot Rod Charlie.

“There are fans for the main part,” Mike Smith said. “It’s back to running in the first Saturday in May where it belongs, instead of last year, when they ran it later in the year. At least we are going to have at least 50% of fans here. That’s the electricity in the air. It’s great to have the fans back.”

Midnight Bourbon is picked as a 20-1 favorite to start the race and will break from post 10. Smith feels his horse is going to be closer to 14-1 when the race starts. He also said there are no special horses like Justify in this year’s Derby.

The odds on favorite to win the race is Godolphin’s undefeated homebred Essential Quality, who is picked to go off as a 2-1 morning-line favorite in a field of 20 3-year-olds for Saturday’s $3 million Kentucky Derby.

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This year, Essential Quality won the Southwest (GIII) at Oaklawn Park over a sloppy track and then the Blue Grass Stakes (GII) at Keeneland. Essential Quality will break from post position 14.

Essential Quality is perfect in five starts in a career that began on Derby Day 2020 with a four-length victory in a six-furlong maiden race at Churchill Downs on Sept. 5.

“Essential Quality is a good horse,” Smith said. “He’s unbeaten, he won the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old. The reason he’s not such a standout favorite is, that in his last race, the prep race he won, but he didn’t win very impressively. In fact, he looked a little horrible in his last race, the Bluegrass. He’s beatable, that’s why he’s not an overwhelming favorite. He’s certainly deserving of being the favorite and will be the horse to beat.”

Smith’s horse has not raced against Essential Quality. Smith said his horse has to run a race that he hasn’t run yet. Smith said that his horse has to run as well as he trains to have a chance to win. Smith said he won’t ride Midnight Bourbon until the day of the race.

“Sometimes, the first time I ride a horse is the day of the race,” Smith said. “It works that way sometimes and it usually is the best ride and works really good. You just go with the flow.”

Midnight Bourbon has a lot going for him. According to Smith, he’s a real big horse and will probably be the tallest horse in the race. The horse is just starting to grow into his body and get muscle around his frame. Smith said the horse is training well and coming around at the right time. Another reason to like Smith’s chances on Midnight Bourbon is the horse won the best work of the day during training.

Smith said his horse is forwardly placed, and he doesn’t expect him to be back in the pack. Smith doesn’t expect Midnight Bourbon to be far off of the lead.

Smith said that COVID-19 totally demolished his year. He said it messed him up not being able to fly to New York three different times to race very good horses.

“I lost horses and really good races I could have ridden in and won,” Smith said.

During the pandemic, Smith was able to race in California without fans. He said that at one point during the quarantine, he had to stay on the grounds in the trailers until that lifted while he raced. Smith said he had to test once a week during the season to be able to ride until the restrictions lifted.

Once again, Smith said the pandemic has made him love the sport all the more. Smith said he feels too good to stop riding. He said he is getting the opportunity to ride some great horses and is at the top of his game to stop.

“I think I would greatly miss it if I stop racing now,” Smith said. “I think when the time comes, I will know it. I will stop then, but right now, it would be too much for me to stop.”

Smith has done it all in the horse racing circles. He has 5,613 wins to date. Smith has won two Kentucky Derbies in 2005 (Giacomo) and 2018 (Justify). What does he have left to prove? He said his goals are to win every time he gets aboard a horse to race.

“To be honest,” Smith said, “I love winning and I don’t like to lose.”

When Smith last came home to Dexter, there was a sign erected of him that people can see when travelers go into Dexter. A highway was named after him, as well.

“I’m still appreciative of those things happening to me,” Smith said. “It’s an honor. I have some of my friends text me when they drive through there and see the road is named after me. For your hometown to do that for me makes me smile from ear to ear every time I think about it or see it. When I’m in town, I get a chance to drive down my own highway.”

The Kentucky Derby will go as the day’s 12th race Saturday, with a 6:57 p.m. post time.

Sports editor J.T. Keith can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 304, or sports@rdrnews.com.

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