Jockey Mike Smith back on familiar turf at Belmont

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NEW YORK – Walking into Belmont Park is like old home week for Mike Smith.

The jockey knows the vast track with its sweeping turns like the back of his hand. Fans who remember him from his successful years riding the New York circuit will hoot and holler.

Smith feels a comfort level at the track that has spelled heartbreak for so many other Triple Crown attempts over the years.

Now he and Justify will take their turn, with a win in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday making the colt racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner and second since 2015.

“I pray that we just get our chance and all those years of experience over it come into play because if that’s the case, we’ll be tough,” Smith said recently. “It’s actually one of my favorite racetracks. You can do so many different things that can win you a race when you might not be on the best horse.”

As the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, Justify is the best horse in the field. Whether the chestnut colt is the best on Saturday remains to be seen.

“I think he’ll run big,” Smith said.

Belmont Park is the site of one of the jockey’s saddest days in racing.

In the 1993 Belmont, Smith was aboard Preakness winner Prairie Bayou. The gelding was running 10th of 13 horses on the backstretch when his left front leg snapped, tossing Smith onto the wet dirt. Smith wasn’t hurt, but his horse ran on and sustained a compound fracture. Prairie Bayou was euthanized.

“I often think of him,” Smith said. “I miss him a lot.”

Smith began riding in New York in 1989. He left for California in 2001 before briefly returning to New York and then settling permanently in California in 2007. He returned to win the Belmont in 2010 with Drosselmeyer and again in 2013 with 13-1 shot Palace Malice.

Now 52, Smith is enjoying a career revival at an age when many riders have hung it up or no longer get called to ride the top horses.

He’s the all-time leader in Breeders’ Cup wins among jockeys with 26. That success in lucrative stakes races helped garner him the nickname “Big Money Mike.” His mounts have earned more than $300 million in his career.

In recent years, he was the regular rider for superstar mare Zenyata, Royal Delta, Songbird, Shared Belief and Game On Dude, among others. In the 1990s, he made a name riding Lure and Holy Bull.

Last year, Smith won 15 Grade 1 races, the most since he won 20 in 1994. Of those, nine were with horses trained by Bob Baffert in a partnership that really took hold two years ago when Smith rode Arrogate to victories in the Travers Stake and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

This year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness were Smith and Baffert’s first two wins together in Triple Crown races.

“A lot of these riders, they get nervous. There’s a lot of pressure on them, but Mike’s been there so many times,” Baffert said. “The thing about Mike, he knows that I’m not worried about him so there’s not that extra pressure. He knows he’s not going to get fired.”

Smith has curtailed his work schedule to focus on riding the best horses in the biggest races. Gone are the days when he would hit the backstretch at the crack of dawn to hustle business in the afternoons by exercising horses in the mornings.

“If I can make just as much money with riding a whole lot less horses, why not?” he said, smiling. “I’ve been blessed to have done really well. Now I’m just enjoying it.”

He adheres to a daunting physical regimen that involves riding his bicycle downhill to a gym, where he exercises for an hour six days a week doing strength training and intense cardio, and then bikes back uphill to go home. He typically rides at 118 pounds, which includes his saddle, boots and padded safety vest.

“I’ve got it down to what I think is a science with my fitness level, so if I hadn’t ridden in four, five days I could jump on one and it doesn’t take nothing out,” he said.

Smith was inspired to focus on fitness several years ago by his friend and fellow Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay Jr., who competed into his 50s before a riding accident forced him to retire. Pincay said Smith once asked him for advice.

“At the time, he had a reputation that he was drinking a lot,” Pincay said. “I said, `Stop drinking and take care of yourself.’ From then on, he started winning all the big races.”

Despite riding 1,200-pound animals at 35 mph, Smith has been relatively injury free throughout his career, although he had a frightening spill in 1998 at Saratoga, where he broke his back and spent months in a body cast.

In 2011 while riding at Del Mar for the summer, Smith was arrested on suspicion of DUI.

“I just always believed that if things ain’t going right, it’s usually for a reason, figure it out and get back on track,” he said. “Every time I’ve gotten back on track, boom, it takes off again.”

Smith has been fortunate away from the track, too.

He recently got engaged to a woman he says didn’t know who he was when they met. The couple plans to wed in January.

Smith figures winning the Triple Crown wouldn’t boost his business that much since he’s already doing well. But the personal satisfaction would be undeniable.

“Oh man, the most content, humble, gracious feeling you could possibly think,” he said, smiling. “I could die and I would be the happiest dying person you ever met.”

Outrider Kaymarie Kreidel key in Preakness chase for Bodexpress

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Bodexpress amused millions around the country for his jockeyless joyride during the 2019 Preakness Stakes. The squirming No. 9 horse had already thrown his jockey John Velazquez off balance in the starting gate, so when the horse took off with a big leap up, as well as forward, his Hall of Famer jockey was thrown to the ground (with no injuries).

How Bodexpress ran the 2019 Preakness without a jockey

The race replays are hallmarked by the bay horse running towards the back of the pack, and his wild (riderless) ride sent shock waves around the internet. After the race, it was announced that Bodexpess had been caught and was in good health. That was made possible by outrider and former jockey Kaymarie Kreidel.

Kreidel rode her first race in 1991 and logged over 2,500 career starts, earning over $3 million by her last race in 2017, according to Equibase. She was aboard Hunter, a former race horse who was retired in 2011 after winning one in five starts and given to Kreidel by Stronach Stables, according to Paulick Report. Together, they work the Maryland race circuit maintaining order for horses and humans a like.

See Larry Collmus, voice of the Triple Crown, call the 144th Preakness

What is an outrider? 

Go to any race track, whether its Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby or your local track on a Wednesday afternoon, and you’re sure to see outriders. They’re even on duty during early morning workouts.

“An outrider’s job is basically like being a police officer,” Kreidel says. “We are in control of the people on the racetrack to make sure everybody follows rules, and we are in control of safety. So if a riders in trouble, we go out and help them assist them in any way: either stopping them or helping them with a horse they cannot steer. And if we have a loose horse, we are first on scene and we react and catch the loose horse if possible.”

There are risks involved, just like any job directly involved with horses. Outriders deal with young, inexperienced and unpredictable horses on a regular basis, so having a reliable mount is crucial.

“I couldn’t be as good of an outrider if I didn’t have the horses to do it,” Kreidel says. “I trust my horses 120 percent. Everything I do, I give my horses 100 percent credit, because without them, I would never be able to do anything that I do.”

How do you catch a loose horse during a race? 

Horses are skittish herd animals, so Bodexpress’ training and natural instincts kicked in, and he rocketed out of the gate and kept pace with the pack even without Velazquez.

“Since he was right with the pack of horses, none of us make an attempt to interfere with the race,” Kreidel recounts.

She and Hunter made their first attempt to grab Bodexpress mid-race, but the young and inexperienced horse was already riled up and wasn’t ready to stop.

“We were going for it, and he ducked to the left up behind horses,” she says. “If I go to grab him and he makes a U-turn, he can run into the horses head on, or he can dive toward another rider and get them hurt. So I went, it didn’t look like it was going to pan out right, so I pull out.”

Kreidel says Bodexpress probably clocked in around 40 or 45 MPH during the Preakness, which only heightened their concern for safety.

He went on to cross the finish line and follow other horses as their jockeys were pulling up. On the backstretch, he switched directions before giving Kreidel another shot.

“I made one bid going the wrong way, and he stopped and spun around and took off again,” she says. “When I made the next bid, that’s when I was able to maintain control, grab the horse and stop him.”

After her daring catch, Kreidel was swarmed by reporters and other outriders, but she wasn’t phased.

“I was a jockey for 16 years, and you get excited before you get in the gate, but once you break out, your focus is on winning the race,” she says. “And yeah, I get excited when the lights comes on and I know I’ve got a loose horse to catch, but once I get focused on that horse, it’s all business. My job is to catch the horse.”

Watch the 2019 Belmont Stakes only on NBC and NBCSN. Coverage on NBCSN begins Friday, June 7 at 5 p.m. for the Belmont Gold Cup and continues on Saturday, June 8 at 2:30 p.m. before moving to NBC at 4 p.m. Post time is set for approximately 6:50 p.m. See the full broadcast schedule here.

Second horse in 4 days dies at Santa Anita

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Santa Anita had its second horse death in four days when a gelding pulled up during a race Sunday and was euthanized a day later.

Twenty-five horses have now died in racing or training at the Southern California track since Dec. 26.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Spectacular Music was running in a six-furlong maiden claiming race when the jockey pulled the horse up on the backstretch shortly after leaving the gate.

The horse was taken off the course with a pelvis injury and the decision to euthanize him was made Monday morning.

On Friday, a 3-year-old horse broke down with a shoulder injury while galloping and was euthanized at the track.

Santa Anita is scheduled to host the Breeders’ Cup Nov. 1-2. It’s considered the biggest two-day event in U.S. horse racing.