He is north of 50 now, an age where you’d think the only horses he should be riding are going up and down around a carousel. But Mike Smith, in the second half of a clearly delineated career, remains today the go-to jockey for big-name horses in million-dollar stakes. He drove that point home during the Nov. 4-5 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, winning three of the 13 races, including defeating California Chrome from a seemingly unwinnable position as Arrogate became the first horse to top Chrome while running on from behind.
It’s been many years since Smith ruled New York, making his bones riding Phipps Stable fillies such as Inside Information and Heavenly Prize and Claiborne’s great miler Lure. And a long time since that August day in 1998 when he got thrown into the hedge of the Saratoga Race Course turf course by a careless rival and sustained two fractured vertebrae. Despite years of hard work, Smith couldn’t earn his way back into the good graces of horsemen. The Skip Aways and Holy Bulls were all in the rearview mirror.
Smith decided to change the scenery in 2000 and moved to California. The New Mexico native found his footing, and his 17-race association with the great Zenyatta paved the way for getting the mounts on runners such as Songbird and Arrogate.
The numbers tell part of the story. The four Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) wins and the 25 Breeders’ Cup victories are tops among riders. No one else has earned more in World Championships purses. But there is another part to Mike Smith that tells far more than the statistics—his class and graciousness in the heat of battle and even immediately following a defeat that would have devastated others.
In the minutes after Songbird had gone down to defeat for the first time in a dozen starts, beaten a thin whisker at the wire in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I), Smith stopped 50 paces down the tunnel from the racetrack, leaned against a wall, and engaged the two journalists that stopped him. Others would have beelined back to the jocks’ room, perhaps begrudgingly passing a word or two toward the notebooks and microphones. Smith, though, looked straight at us, a twinkle playing at his eyes and a smile tinged by the irony of having done everything right only to have the outcome come out so painstakingly wrong. There wasn’t a hint of anger or impatience. He spoke about Songbird going easily enough early, about how he wanted to put a length or two between him and Beholder (his friend Gary Stevens up) on the turn, but that Beholder jumped on Songbird before he could. He talked about taking his hat off to Beholder and about what a great champion she is and about how proud he was of Songbird, who never gave up and was determined to stay to the finish.
“Other than losing, it was an amazing, amazing race,” Smith said. “Someone has to get there first, and it wasn’t our turn today. But we’ve been so blessed and done so well with her, and she showed who she is in defeat, just like Zenyatta did. And just like with Zenyatta, it hurts.”
Perspective often is lost in life. Smith, though, appreciates his rebound, and that allows him to accept a tough defeat on a great racehorse. And it is not lost on him that he is riding great racehorses.
He is playing with house money at this stage of his brilliant career. He noted that he and Stevens didn’t speak much after the race because, “We were both out of air.”
But not out of class. Not by a longshot.