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.”

Irad Ortiz sets single-season record with 77th stakes win

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NEW YORK – Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. earned his record 77th single-season North American stakes victory when he guided Dr B to victory in the $200,000 Go for Wand at Aqueduct.

The 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico broke the old mark of 76 set by the late Hall of Fame rider Garrett Gomez in 2007.

“This is great. Amazing feeling,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey from 2018-20. “Gomez did it in 2007 and he was a great rider, one of the best in the game. I’m so happy just to be a part of this. I love this sport.”

Ortiz Jr. won the Belmont Stakes with Mo Donegal in June to go with Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile, Filly & Mare Sprint and Sprint. He also earned nine other Grade 1 wins in New York, including Life Is Good in the Woodward and Whitney and Nest in the Alabama and Coaching Club Oaks. He won riding titles at Belmont’s spring-summer meet and Saratoga’s summer meet.

Ortiz Jr. leads North American riders with 304 overall victories this year. His purse earnings totaled over $35.8 million going into Saturday’s races, which already surpassed his single-season record of $34.1 million in 2019.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”