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.”

Baffert sweeps Grade 1 two-year-old races at Los Alamitos

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LOS ALAMITOS, Calif. — Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert swept the CashCall Futurity and Starlet for 2-year-olds, winning the Grade 1 races for the second straight year at Los Alamitos.

Improbable won the $300,345 Futurity by five lengths as the 1-5 favorite and 3-2 favorite Chasing Yesterday won the $300,345 Starlet by a head on Saturday. Drayden Van Dyke became the second jockey to win both races in the same year.

Baffert earned his fifth straight victory in the Futurity and his 11th overall, having won it six times at old Hollywood Park.

Improbable ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.18 and paid $2.40 to win. The colt’s ownership includes most of the group that owned Triple Crown winner Justify.

In the Starlet, Chasing Yesterday ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.59 and paid $5 to win. She is a half-sister to 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, also trained by Baffert.

Victor Espinoza aims for January comeback

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DEL MAR, Calif. — Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza is aiming to return to riding in January, six months after he was seriously injured in a training accident.

The 46-year-old rider says he had an MRI recently and “it came out perfect.” Espinoza says he doesn’t need surgery and his spinal cord has healed “perfectly,” which was his main concern.

He fractured a vertebra in his neck at Del Mar last July when the horse he was exercising fell.

Espinoza was back at Del Mar on Saturday for the first time since the accident. He presented the trophy to the winning connections in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby. He has been recuperating at his Del Mar home.

Espinoza says he hopes to return sometime in January at Santa Anita. The track opens its winter meet on Dec. 26.

He rode American Pharoah to a Triple Crown sweep in 2015.