Mike Smith came to a fork in the road with Lion Heart and Azeri and has decided on Lion Heart. Both horses are scheduled to run in grade I stakes on April 3, Lion Heart in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby and Azeri in the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.
Smith has ridden each horse in all of its races, Lion Heart four times and Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, 16 times. Combined, they have lost only three races.
But Smith has decided to ride Lion Heart, a leading 3-year-old owned by Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor. The son of Tale of the Cat suffered his first loss in the March 6 San Rafael Stakes at one mile.
"Without a doubt it's something you don't want to do," Smith said on surrendering the mount on Azeri. "But right now I'm riding Tabor's 3-year-olds and I'm sticking with them since the time I picked them up. That's the deal we made and so far it's a good deal. I hate to have to take off Azeri, but who knows what's going to happen. We still have a few weeks left (until April 3).
"Although it's a tough, tough call, it's a better situation to be in than not having any choice at all. In the meantime, I've kept in touch with Mr. Paulson (Michael Paulson, owner of Azeri). We've talked. We both understand the situation and hopefully I can continue to ride Azeri down the road. I'm the only one who's ever ridden her and she means the world to me. I'd like to stay on her. We'll just have to wait and see how everything plays out."