January 29, 2023

Mike Smith, Hard Not to Love score record-equaling win in La Brea

Hard Not to Love and Mike Smith win the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019 at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA ©Benoit Photo

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith made history in Saturday’s $300,000 La Brea (G1) on Santa Anita’s opening day, producing 11-1 longshot Hard Not to Love from off the pace to secure his 216th Grade 1 victory.

Smith matched the standard for North American jockeys established by fellow Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey, who retired in 2006. The La Brea result was a testament to both the talent of Hard Not to Love and Smith’s perfectly timed ride, two factors that combined to produce the history-making upset.

Leaving the starting gate in the 7-furlong sprint, Smith was content to let Hard Not to Love settle in last place as 3-5 favorite and Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) runner-up Bellafina raced to the front through blazing fractions of :21.70 and :44.41. Stakes winner Mother Mother, returning from a layoff, pressed the pace in second.

Bellafina successfully put away Mother Mother in the homestretch, but by then Smith had Hard Not to Love rolling fast on the far outside. The daughter of Hard Spun motored home strongly down the lane, rallying past leg-weary Bellafina to score by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:22.17. Mother Mother finished another length back in third.

First Star and Bell’s the One, both experienced in graded stakes company, rounded out the top five, while longshots Del Mar May, Stirred, Motion Emotion, and Free Cover completed the order of finish.

“It’s quite a feat,” Smith said of his record-equaling triumph. “It is something that is going to go up there as one of my greatest achievements. Just to equal a guy like Jerry Bailey is amazing. He’s someone I’ve looked up to for years.”

Hard Not to Love registered her first stakes win, and her La Brea triumph was all the more remarkable considering she lost her left eye as a yearling. The 3-year-old filly could not see her rivals in the homestretch. She also acted up before the race, presenting a challenge to her handlers.

“Yes, she was really a handful going to the gate,” winning trainer John Shirreffs said. “She only has the one eye, and when she gets nervous, she tends to spin around to see. This was a great race to win… Mike has really made a difference with her. When he made the decision to ride her, he put his reputation as a horseman on the line. I think that made this even more special.”

“My hat’s off to West Point Thoroughbreds, John Shirreffs and the whole barn, so many people,” Smith said. “They work so hard with this mare. She has one eye, so she gets a little bit of anxiety at times. We work hard with her and it’s great to see the hard work that we put in pay off today.”

Victor Espinoza, who rode runner-up Bellafina, noted the favorite ran out of steam in the final furlong.

“(Mother Mother) was sort of pressing me on the pace a little bit, but nevertheless (Bellafina) was comfortable,” he explained. “When we were heading for home around the eighth pole, she was still running, but then in the blink of an eye, I was like, ‘Wow, what happened?’ She ran a great race for her first race back from the Breeders’ Cup. That’s hard for any horse. She ran a good solid, second today.”

Produced from the Vindication mare Loving Vindication, Hard Not to Love is owned by the partnership of Mercedes Stables, West Point Thoroughbreds, Scott Dilworth, Dorothy Ingordo, David Ingordo, and Steve Mooney. Purchased for $400,000 as a yearling, Hard Not to Love has won four of her five starts while compiling earnings of $288,480.