BALTIMORE (AP) — The jockey shuffle heading into the Preakness has a “musical chairs” feel to it.
Of the 13 jockeys in Saturday’s race, nine who rode in the Kentucky Derby are aboard a different horse in the Preakness. Most notably, Hall of Famer Mike Smith is now riding favored Improbable with familiar trainer Bob Baffert, bumping Irad Ortiz to Bourbon War.
“It seems to be a little bit more than maybe most of the time, but this isn’t uncommon,” Smith said. “Especially during this Triple Crown stuff, there’s a lot of musical chairs. A lot of people picked up horses at the last minute and won the Derby, won the Preakness and won the Belmont, for that matter.”
An unusual chain of events has contributed to all the movement this year.
The top four horses that crossed the finish line in Kentucky won’t run in the Preakness. Improbable is the morning line favorite partially because he has finished first or second in five of six races, the lone exception when he came in fifth at the Derby and was bumped up to fourth after Maximum Security was disqualified.
Smith chose to ride Omaha Beach in the Derby, but after the race favorite was scratched, Baffert opted to stick with Ortiz. That didn’t work well for anyone — Improbable never really got a sniff of the lead under Ortiz and Smith finished 10th with Cutting Humor.
The team of Baffert and Smith produced a Triple Crown last year with Justify and four years ago with American Pharoah, and now trainer and jockey are together again trying to recreate the magic.
“It’s nothing against Irad. He rode him great in the Derby,” said Elliot Walden, co-owner of Improbable. “It came down to a simple thing: Bob Baffert’s had good luck with Mike Smith. Bob’s kind of a karma guy.”
That’s only one of many switches for this race. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez replaces Chris Landeros aboard Bodexpress; Joel Rosario goes from Game Winner to Everfast; Jon Court from Long Range Toddy to Market Express and Jose Ortiz from Tacitus to Anothertwistafate.
Also, Ricardo Santana moves from Plus Que Parfait to Laughing Fox, and Javier Castellano from Vekoma to Warrior’s Charge, which caused Florent Geroux to get in the saddle aboard Owendale.
Smith has been through similar situations before, and would love to pull off another win on Saturday.
“Sometimes the first time you ride is the best time. I have a knack with that sometimes,” he said.
It’s a little easier decision when Baffert, a Hall of Fame trainer, reaches out with the opportunity to ride a strong, fast horse.
“You’ve got Mike Smith at this point in his career picking up all the best horses all around,” said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who’s entering Market King. “Mike picked up Omaha Beach, who probably would have been the favorite in the Derby, then he jumps back to Baffert because the favorite is here. He’s having a fairytale ride.”
There are times when trainer and jockey match up through pure luck. Velazquez needed a mount and the Bodexpress camp was looking for a jockey, so now they’re teamed on a 20-1 horse in the Preakness.
“It was actually Johnny and (his agent) asking, ‘Who’s riding your horse?’” assistant trainer Gustavo Delgado Jr. said. “When you have somebody like that asking, it gives you a nice feeling that you have a shot.”
Only two jockeys get to pick up where they left off in the Derby — Tyler Gaffalione on War of Will and Julian Pimentel on Win Win Win.
Not that there’s anything wrong with staying put.
Explaining why he stuck with Gaffalione, trainer Mark Casse said, “Well, he knows him extremely well. He knows what he likes, what he doesn’t like.”
Gaffalione, who will be making his sixth trip aboard War of Will, said of the horse: “I’ve always been a big fan of his, even before I rode him.”
Seeking his seventh Preakness win, Lukas will have Court aboard Market King for the fourth time in five races.
“There were other options, maybe a bit more of a name rider that I could have picked up — without naming names,” Lukas said. “Trainers go with people they’re comfortable with. With Mike Smith, he just gets one of those, don’t fall off and you’re going to win.”
Maybe Irad Ortiz could have won on Improbable. But it’s hard to resist a reprise of Baffert and Smith.
“I’d use Irad in the next race if we could,” Walden said. “It’s just that Bob wanted Mike Smith because they’ve had so much history and so much success together.”
AP Sports Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this report.
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