Old guys rule on Day 1 of Breeders' Cup

Jockeys Gary Stevens wins the $2-million Distaff and Mike Smith takes the first two races at Santa Anita.

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The Sunshine Boys isn't just playing this weekend at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. It's also running at Santa Anita, during the Breeders' Cup.

Santa Anita's version isn't just two old guys, blabbing away on stage. This pair, Gary Stevens and Mike Smith, ride the most expensive and talented race horses in the world.

If Friday's first day of the $25-million event was an indication, they do so better than the rest.

If youth is to be served, it needs to be Saturday, when there are nine races left for the taking, including the $5-million Classic.

Stevens won Friday's big race, the $2-million Distaff, aboard a local horse, Beholder, trained by a local legend, Richard Mandella.

Smith won two others, the first two on the Breeders' Cup card — the $500,000 Marathon, atop London Bridge, and the $1-million Juvenile Turf, atop Outstrip.

Stevens is 50. His 10% of his owner's 60% of $2 million is $120,000. Smith is 48. His 10% of his owners' $1.5 million is $90,000.

Clearly, they both still have their teeth and walk without canes. Ages 50 and 48 are not old, unless you are riding 1,000-pound horses at 30 mph, in tight company with other 1,000-pound horses. No cataracts allowed. Agility and quickness equal survival.

Also, they are best of friends, so the digs come easily.

"I'm so proud of Mike," Stevens said after his victory, "of what he did in the first two races, even if he did shut me off in one of those races."

Stevens also said, "He's plying his trade as good as anybody in the game, and I feel like I am too."

Both are in the racing Hall of Fame, as is Mandella. He has now won eight Breeders' Cup races, a record four in 2003, two 10 years before that, one last year with Beholder and now, in his third successful 10-year increment of success, No. 8 in the Friday featured Distaff.

Expect Las Vegas to put Mandella in a future book for the 2023 Breeders' Cup, even though those horses haven't been born yet.

Despite offering such huge money, the Distaff attracted only six horses. Beholder went off as the third favorite, after Royal Delta and Princess Of Sylmar. Royal Delta was seeking her third straight Distaff victory. Princess Of Sylmar was trying to top her greatest moment, when she beat Beholder in the Kentucky Oaks at 38-1 odds. Smith rode Princess Of Sylmar in that Oaks race and rode Royal Delta in both previous Distaff wins and in Friday's race.

The race strategy was quickly obvious. Smith wanted to be on the lead or close. Authenticity edged to the front, so Smith positioned himself perfectly on her shoulder. Then Stevens positioned himself perfectly on Smith's shoulder.

It all began to happen just before they reached the final turn. Stevens brought Beholder even, then edged ahead of Royal Delta. Then further ahead.

From Royal Delta, Smith got nothing.

"I asked her, then I asked her again," he said. "Usually, you feel that surge. It wasn't there. I was dumbfounded."

That was the moment of the race. Chris McCarron, a good enough jockey to also be in the Hall of Fame, was asked to analyze it.

"Gary looked over at Mike," McCarron said, "and saw Mike urging his horse and not getting much. Then he knew, aha."

Stevens said the "aha" didn't come until he got to the middle of the turn and felt lots of horse under him.

Stevens also said he and Smith had had a quick moment outside the jockey's room just before they climbed aboard for the Distaff.

"We just said good luck and be safe," Stevens said.

Nothing more was said, even during the race, which often includes lots of jockey jawing.

"Just nostrils and hoofbeats," Stevens said.

B. Wayne Hughes, Beholder's owner, multimillionaire owner of, among other things, storage units, and a big USC booster, summed up his feelings by quoting former Trojans coach Pete Carroll.

"He always said," Hughes said, "you can't be a champion unless you beat champions."

Beholder did exactly that and became the first to complete the Breeders' Cup double of the Juvenile Fillies (last year) and the Distaff.

Mandella, good with the quip but often reserved, was in rare form.

At one point, he praised Beholder for "overcoming my training mistakes." At another point, when asked whether Beholder might be aimed at the $5-million Classic against the boys next year, because there is $3 million more at stake in that race, he said, grinning, "We're not in this for the money."

That might have been a more accurate answer from Hughes, who said that he thought the race was for $1 million, not $2 million.

Saturday, with nine Breeders' Cup races, the money really gets big and so does everything else. Friday's crowd was 35,833, about 1,200 more than last year. Saturday could attract as many as 50,000. Friday's purses totaled $5.5 million. Saturday's will be $19.5 million.

Smith has eight rides left, Stevens six. The story is likely to change. There is a limit to just how much Advil and ointment can do. Still, it will be hard for gamblers to look elsewhere, even if Smith and Stevens are spotted early Saturday morning, making their way to the jockeys room behind walkers.

Trainer Bob Baffert calls them the Geritol Jocks. The Sunshine Boys image works too.

But the people who placed a dollar or two on them Friday might keep the description simpler.



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