Using density functional theory, we study the preferential ordering of rod-like guest particles immersed in a smectic host fluid. Within a model of perfectly aligned rods and assuming that the guest particles do not perturb the smectic host fluid, simple excluded-volume arguments explain that guest particles that are comparable in length to the host particles order in phase with the smectic host density layering, whereas guest particles that are considerably shorter or longer order in antiphase. The corresponding free-energy minima are separated by energetic barriers on the order of the thermal energy kBT, suggesting that guest particles undergo hopping-type diffusion between adjacent smectic layers. Upon introducing a slight orientational mismatch between the guest particles and the perfectly aligned smectic host, an additional, smaller free-energy barrier emerges for a range of intermediate guest-to-host length ratios, which splits the free-energy minimum into two. Guest particles in this range occupy positions intermediate between in-phase ordering and in-antiphase ordering. Finally, we use Kramers' theory to identify slow, fast, and intermediate diffusive regimes for the guest particles as a function of their length. Our model is in qualitative agreement with experiment and simulation and provides an alternative, complementary explanation in terms of a free-energy landscape for the intermediate diffusive regime, which was previously hypothesized to result from temporary caging effects [M. Chiappini, E. Grelet, and M. Dijkstra, Phys. Rev. Lett. 124, 087801 (2020)]. We argue that our simple model of aligned rods captures the salient features of incommensurate-length guest particles in a smectic host if a slight orientational mismatch is introduced.

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