Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith is struggling to believe that in the twilight of his career he has been presented with a chance to win the Triple Crown on Justify.
The Bob Baffert-trained colt did not make his debut until February, but has made rapid strides and is now unbeaten in five races.
Smith, 52, has ridden some of the greats of American racing in a stellar career such as Drosselmeyer and Zenyatta and he even won the Irish 2,000 Guineas back in 1991 on Fourstars Allstar. But a Triple Crown would trump anything else.
“The fact this horse didn’t run until February is a whole other story in itself, I’ve never seen anything like it in my 37 years of racing,” Smith told Press Association Sport.
“We’ve had horses start off late winning one of the three, but nothing like winning the Derby and then the Preakness and then hopefully the Triple Crown.
“Another part of the story is that I’ve been riding so long and then this happens at my age, you wouldn’t expect it to happen.
“I’m pretty happy to get the opportunity towards the end of my career. Something like this will make going into the next stage of my life a whole lot easier to ride off into the sunset.”
Notoriously difficult to achieve, the Triple Crown sees the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and the Belmont all staged within five weeks of each other, but Smith feels Justify is in better shape now than before the second leg.
He said: “I was watching him train on Thursday morning and his energy levels are really high, I think he’s training better right now than he ever has, which is strange after having those races back to back.
“He seems to be getting better and stronger. Obviously we won’t know until he runs, but he looks great.
“We’ve drawn post one, so I’ll let him do what he does best and draw them out of there, get him nice and comfortable early and see how he finishes.”
He went on: “I don’t see the extra distance being a problem, as the pace of the race will be different. The mile and a quarter of the Derby is really fast, there’s 20 horses so you have to get a good spot.
“The Preakness was a little easier, but the track was just a mess. I was locked on with another horse nearly the whole way, but we were able to pull it off.
“The margin of victory wasn’t that much, but I thought he did it pretty well. The remarkable thing is he’s training better since, he came out of it much better than he did the Derby when he had bruised heels.”
Should Justify win it will be a second Triple Crown in just four years for Baffert, after American Pharoah in 2015 broke a 37-year barren spell for a winner of all three races.
“This is the fifth time Bob has been going for the Triple Crown, he’s only half a nose and a neck away from going for a fourth Triple Crown (Silver Charm and Real Quiet both won the first two legs before being narrowly beaten in the third),” said Smith.
“Bob is a brilliant horseman, I can’t say enough about him. To get a horse ready for something like this is incredible.”