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.”

Triple Crown winner Justify to resume training in California

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Triple Crown champion Justify has returned to his base at Santa Anita accompanied by a police escort and was greeted by trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith.

The winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont flew from Louisville, Kentucky, to Ontario, California, on Sunday. After landing, four Arcadia Police Department units traveled with the 13th Triple Crown winner to the racetrack.

After winning the Belmont in New York on June 9, Justify returned to Churchill Downs, where he and his human connections were honored on Saturday night.

Justify will resume training this week and be paraded between races this weekend.

NBC presents 22 hours of daily live coverage of Royal Ascot

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STAMFORD, Conn. – June 14, 2018 – NBC Sports presents daily live coverage of the Royal Meeting in Ascot, Berkshire, England  – one of the most prestigious horse racing meets in the world – including the first-ever NBC broadcast of the race on Saturday, June 23, at 9 a.m. ET. Live coverage of the event begins Tuesday, June 19, at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN, with daily telecasts of the full five-day Royal meeting on NBCSN through Friday, June 22. In total, NBC Sports Group will present 22 hours of coverage over the five days.

Royal Ascot is one of the world’s most valuable horse racing events, attracting many of the world’s finest racehorses.  The event features 30 races, including eight at the world championship “Group One” level. Highlighting the American contingent is trainer Wesley Ward, who has won nine races at Royal Ascot over the years. He is scheduled to bring 10 horses to Ascot this year, highlighted by Lady Aurelia, who is looking to win her third straight race at The Royal Meeting. She races in the King’s Stand on Tuesday during NBCSN’s first day of coverage.

The Royal Meeting is the center of the British social season and a pivotal week in the calendar of the Royal Family, who arrive every day by the world famous “Royal Procession” – with the first carriage carrying The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

NBC News’ Dylan Dreyer makes her Royal Ascot debut on Friday and Saturday, alongside Nick Luck, who will host coverage for all five days. On Friday morning, June 22, Dreyer will report live from Berkshire on TODAY.

Following is NBC Sports’ schedule for the Royal Ascot next week:

Date Time (ET) Show Network
Tues., June 19 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Wed., June 20 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Thurs., June 21 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Fri., June 22 8:30 a.m. Royal Ascot NBCSN
Sat., June 23 9 a.m. Royal Ascot NBC

NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app – NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, tablets, and connected TVs – will stream coverage of the Royal Meeting. The NBC Sports app will stream coverage via “TV Everywhere,” giving consumers additional value to their subscription service, and making high-quality content available to MVPD customers both in and out of the home and on multiple platforms. Powered by Playmaker Media, the NBC Sports app is available on Apple iOS, Android and select Samsung devices, as well as on Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Win10, and Xbox.

NBC SPORTS GROUP AND HORSE RACING: In addition to the Royal Ascot, NBC Sports Group is the exclusive home to the most important and prestigious events in horse racing, including the Triple Crown and the Breeders’ Cup. Also in 2018, NBC Sports Group televised the world’s richest horse race (the $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational) and the $10 million Dubai World Cup, and in June presented the Epsom Derby. NBC has been the exclusive home of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes since 2001, and the Belmont Stakes since 2011, when NBC Sports Group reassembled the Triple Crown.