Despite being an old man in a young man’s game, Mike Smith is still among the most respected riders in the country at age 50. The 34-year veteran has seen it all, and won nearly every race worth winning as a professional rider, and the superstar mounts keep on coming for him. Smith is currently the rider of Songbird, widely regarded as the best filly in the country. She adds to long list of notable horses the Hall of Fame rider has piloted that includes Holy Bull, Royal Delta and Zenyatta.
Smith got his start in 1982 when he was 16-years-old; he took out a jockey’s license and began riding across the Midwest at tracks like Canterbury Park, when he earned his apprenticeship, Oaklawn Park and Hawthorne. By 1990, Smith was dominating the NYRA circuit, and began piling up 250-win years with regularity. In 1993 and 1994, when Smith rode over 600 winners combined, he was recognized as Outstanding Rider with back-to-back Eclipse Awards.
Richard Migliore, a contemporary of Smith’s and an outstanding jockey in his own right, rode alongside Smith while they plied their trade in New York, and he recognized what immense talent Smith possessed.
“His gift as a rider is letting horses find their rhythm, find their stride and then get them in the clear to make one run,” he said in a 2014 interview. “And he won’t use the whip until extremely late in the game, just to get that one, last little bit of energy out of a horse. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to build to that kind of crescendo.”
Smith, who began taking fewer mounts after injuries nearly derailed his career in 1998, moved his tack to Southern California in 2000, and has remained there ever since. But just because Smith is riding less doesn’t mean he takes his job any less seriously. In fact, Smith’s rigorous fitness routine has put his younger colleagues to shame.
According to an 2014 Sports Illustrated profile, Smith, “bikes three miles downhill from his house to the Matador Performance Center in Pasadena, where he runs and rides a stationary bike another six to 10 miles before digging into an hour-long weight workout. On race days…Smith will often run several miles in the deep loam of the racetrack before riding.”
“Mike [Smith] has the body of a 30-year-old,” Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey said in a 2014 interview. “He’s the fittest rider in America.”
Smith has the most wins of any jockey in Breeders’ Cup history with 22. His first triumph came all the way back in 1992 when he won the first of two Breeders’ Cup Miles on Lure. Since then he’s won at least once in just about every division, including three wins in the Classic, and has won at least one Breeders’ Cup race in each of the last five years.
Smith has been successful on the Triple Crown trail as well, and the horses he rode to victory were not sure things. Prairie Bayou was a tepid favorite when Smith won the Preakness Stakes with him in 1993, but Smith’s two Belmont Stakes victories came aboard horses priced at 13-1 each time; Drosselmeyer in 2010 and Palace Malice in 2013. Smith pulled off his biggest upset in the Triple Crown series aboard 50-1 Giacomo in the 2005 Kentucky Derby, his only win in the race to date.
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