HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Mike Smith has won just about everything racing can offer.
The richest race ever is the next challenge.
Smith has nearly $300 million in purses so far in his legendary career – and the Hall of Famer could add quite a bit to that on Saturday when he rides Arrogate in the inaugural $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. It’s a rematch with soon-to-be-retired Horse of the Year California Chrome, who Smith and Arrogate toppled at the Breeders’ Cup Classic in their first and only meeting last fall.
“To get the opportunity to ride a horse of this magnitude in this stage in my career, and then to get to ride one in the richest race in the world, it’s incredible,” Smith said. “I’m just so blessed and so looking forward to it.”
If not for this most unusual and first-of-its-kind race, one where 12 stakeholders put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate, there would be no rematch. But in a sport that still sees most of its attention come around the Triple Crown races that start in May and then the Breeders’ Cup near the end of the year, something like the Pegasus can generate some serious and helpful buzz.
California Chrome was installed as the 6-5 morning-line favorite, just ahead of Arrogate. If those two horses are right, then none of the other 10 starters would figure to come close to either on Saturday.
“To race for this amount of money, it’s crazy,” Smith said. “I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined we would be racing for that. You know, I remember when $500,000 was incredible. This is $12 million. I mean, if you really stop and think about it, it’s an unbelievable opportunity for racing. I hope we make the most of it. I hope we all put on a great show.”
The financial stakes couldn’t be bigger.
That’s usually a good sign when Smith is riding.
At 51, he picks his spots now on when and whom to ride. Nearly half of his mounts last year came in races with purses of $100,000 or more. He was eighth among North American jockeys in earnings last season – the other seven who won more money needed an average of 1,214 starts in 2016, while Smith rode in only 335 races.
His average earnings per start: A staggering $39,857.
For comparison, Eclipse Award winner Javier Castellano’s average earnings per start: $18,918, which is superb – yet less than half of Smith’s figure.
“Mike Smith, he knows what he has to do,” Arrogate trainer Bob Baffert said. “There’s nothing I have to tell him. I don’t give him any instructions.”
Smith has earned the right to be choosy. The best owners and the best trainers want to bring the best horses his way, in large part because he’s shown no signs of slowing down.
He has two personal trainers in his employ, depending on where he is at a given time. He’s usually working out six days a week, still watches everything he eats, and prides himself on how well he’s taken care of his body. He remembers thinking 50 was old. Not anymore, and he’s thinking he can still ride at the top level for at least a few more years.
“I think I’m even in better shape now than I was,” Smith said. “Definitely wiser. I remember when I first started there wasn’t hardly anybody in the jockey’s room that didn’t smoke. Everyone would sit around, cup of coffee and a cigarette, then go out and ride the next race. And training’s hard, but I’ve made it a way of life. If you do that, it’s amazing what you’re capable of.”
He beat California Chrome in the Classic last year, and also found a way to beat him in the San Antonio Invitational in 2015.
Now he’s tasked with doing it again, on another enormous stage.
“I live for this day,” Smith said. “This is what it’s all about for me right now.”