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.”

What to know about the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby

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The Kentucky Derby is one of the most iconic sporting events in the world. Every year, millions of fans tune into NBC to watch top race horses from around the globe compete in “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports.”

What is the Kentucky Derby? The Kentucky Derby, run the first Saturday in May, is one of the most well known Grade 1 Thoroughbred stakes races in the world. First run in 1875, this 1 1/4 mile–or 10 furlongs–race kicks off the American Triple Crown of horse racing.

When and where is the 2019 Kentucky Derby? The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby is on Saturday, May 4, 2019 with a post time of 6:50 p.m. ET.

The Derby is run on the dirt track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, where it has been held since its inaugural running in 1875.

How can I watch the 2019 Kentucky Derby? NBC is home to the 145th Kentucky Derby, providing comprehensive race coverage and analysis live on TV and NBCSports.com before, during and after. NBC will also broadcast the 2019 Preakness Stakes and 2019 Belmont Stakes.

How are horses picked for the Derby? Only 3-year-old Thoroughbreds can qualify for the Kentucky Derby. Eligible horses compete in the Race to the Kentucky Derby, a series of 35 races around the world. Horses win points for finishing in the top four spots, and the 20 horses with the most points at the end of the series gain entry into the Derby.

Who won the 2018 Kentucky Derby? WinStar Farm’s colt Justify, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith, won the 144th Kentucky Derby. He went on to win the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, becoming the 13th horse ever to win the Triple Crown.

What are the biggest Kentucky Derby traditions? Bold formal outfits for both men and women are synonymous with the Kentucky Derby. Celebrities and fans a like go all out, donning creative and colorful hats, bright colors and wild patterns. In fact, hats and outfits are such a big part of the Kentucky Derby that the Derby Museum has a whole exhibit for the most lavished fashions.

The Mint Julep, made with Kentucky bourbon, is the signature drink of the Derby, and Kentucky’s state song “My Old Kentucky Home” is played during the pre-race post parade. After the race, the champion horse is given the iconic garland of roses in the winner’s circle.

What else is there to do during Derby Weekend? The Kentucky Oaks is a Grade 1 stakes race held annually the day before the Kentucky Derby. The Oaks has the same 3-year-old restriction as the Derby but is for fillies only. Additionally, there is a week of events at Churchill Downs, and the month-long Kentucky Derby Festival celebrated across Louisville.

Jockey Craig Perret among nine finalists for HOF

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — Jockey Craig Perret, trainers Mark Casse, Christophe Clement and David Whiteley, and five thoroughbreds are contemporary finalists for the National Museum of Racing’s 2019 Hall of Fame ballot.

The racehorses are Blind Luck, Gio Ponti, Havre de Grace, Rags to Riches and Royal Delta.

Results of the voting on the contemporary candidates will be announced April 22. All candidates that receive majority approval of the voting panel will be elected to the Hall of Fame.

The hall’s induction ceremony will be held Aug. 2 in Saratoga Springs.