LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Mike Smith held the tears back until the fifth question asked of him. Which was a monumental feat, because he had begun taking responsibility for Zenyatta's first loss, in the most brutally competitive race she'd run, after the first question.
But the jockey who had ridden her for all but three of her career starts lost the fight with his emotions about a half-hour after that other loss Saturday, in possibly the most anticipated Breeders' Cup Classic ever.
"It hurts more than I can explain,'' he said, hesitatingly pressing his hands against his eyes, then choking up. "Just because it was my fault.'' He paused again, then continued, his voice cracking, "She should have won, and it hurts.''
In the silence that followed, a woman called from the back of the interview room at Churchill Downs, "You're still amazing, Mike. Don't worry.''
So is a lifetime 19-1 record, but the "1'' will be remembered long after the 19, and Smith -- it's impossible under the circumstances to say "no pun intended'' -- took the blame. It's what jockeys do, along with crediting the horse and his trainers and owners and fans when they win. As well as literally bouncing back from injuries on the track, and girding up to mount another ride after the last one broke down and had to be humanely destroyed.
Blackistone: The Agony -- and Ecstasy -- of Zenyatta's Defeat | View Pictures
The latter adventures happened to Garrett Gomez, who rode the winning horse, Blame. Gomez was thrown off the stumbling Indy Bouquet on Thursday, had to leave the track on a gurney and was hospitalized. He vowed to return for his scheduled Breeders' Cup mounts. He made it, winning the first and last races of the day -- and in the first, on Pluck in the Juvenile Turf, he nearly became a casualty again when Rough Sailing fell and threw jockey Rosie Napravnik. Rough Sailing had to be euthanized.
"The highs are highs, and the lows are low,'' Gomez said. "You guys see that (from) Thursday to today. I feel no pain right now. I'm in Cloud Nine.''
On top of that, one of the top-notch horses Gomez and Blame defeated in the Classic was Lookin At Lucky -- whom he had ridden in the Kentucky Derby, finished sixth, and had been replaced for the Preakness by trainer Bob Baffert. Lookin At Lucky won at Pimlico. Gomez beat him Saturday.
All in a day's work. So, Gomez felt deeply for what Smith was going through.
"It's a lot of pressure,'' Gomez said of Smith chasing history on Zenyatta. "I think he's dealt with it over the last two years unbelievable. You know, you have to have the horse to have the trips and to hit certain holes when you need to. She's been a wonderful horse.
"I empathize with him because they've had a long relationship over the last couple of years, and a lot of big races, a lot of Grade 1 races, high-pressure situations. And they've come through in 19 of them.'' He then said, without even slowing down, "And I'm glad to be the one to upset him.''
(There's never a bad time for a history lesson, of course, so: the term "upset'' in sports either did or didn't originate from a horse named Upset handing Man O' War his only defeat, in 1919. It's no accident that it grew in popularity after that, though. And it's probably no coincidence that the horse that broke the longest winning streak in American racing history was named Blame, which is what surely would be assigned somewhere if Zenyatta were to lose, even by a head.)
Smith, of course, hadn't exactly forgotten about what it's like to lose, races or otherwise, just because he was steering Zenyatta all that time. He's lived the jockey's life, too: on his way to the Hall of Fame and wins in each of the Triple Crown races during nearly three decades riding, he's suffered severe injuries to his back and shoulder. Plus, it took him until 2005, on a 50-1 longshot named Giacomo, to win his first Derby. He's also lived with a legendary horse whose legend partly came from rallying from behind, which Zenyatta came breathtakingly close to doing Saturday.
The race-viewing world knew who won instantly, but the combatants didn't, as it turned out. Smith turned to Gomez to ask him as they rode out at the end, Gomez said: "He asked me if I won, and I said, 'I think so,' but I'm not completely positive until I see the No. 5 go up.''
Smith, meanwhile, wasn't in a mood to recall such details. He talked about how, as the skeptics had expected, Zenyatta was bothered by the kickback of dirt that she doesn't encounter on synthetic tracks. How the going early on wasn't easy and she fell far behind, and how the great comeback was all because of Zenyatta herself, not because of anything he did. How he would do some things in the saddle differently if he could do it all over again.
Blame, he said, "ran an incredible race. He didn't fold, and I needed him to fold just a little bit, but he didn't.''
With Zenyatta, he said, he "just left her with too much to do. I truly believe I was on the best horse today. If I had to blame anybody, it would be me.''
It wasn't easy for him to take. It wasn't easy for him to answer the last handful of questions. "Again, I believe she ranks up there with the greatest of all time,'' he said, haltingly, of Zenyatta. "If I'd have won this, you could arguably say she was. To come up a nose short is just ... '' He stopped again. "It's too hard. It's hard.'' He wiped his eyes again, wiped his face, blinked and stared out at the audience. That audience applauded as he walked from the podium.
Again, Gomez knew what he felt. The last race Blame ran before the Breeders' Cup was the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont last month, when he was a prohibitive favorite. He lost. It shook his team's confidence briefly, and even though they said they regained it, that doesn't go away completely until the next race. When Blame and Gomez won it, they were as relieved as they were thrilled.
And saddened by what Smith was going through, having hung that "1'' where a "0" had always been. Well, to a point. Gomez was asked if it had hurt to answer Smith's post-game question by telling him Blame had beaten Zenyatta.
Said Gomez: "No.''