Well-Aged: Mike Smith Still “Money” on the Big Stage

Hall of Famer “blessed” to still be in the game

As the world’s richest horse race nears its inaugural running, it seems only fitting that the world’s best big-money rider would not only be involved, but have a major say in its outcome.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will be aboard Arrogate in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Saturday at Gulfstream Park. It will be the 4-year-old colt’s first start since his half-length upset of California Chrome in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last November.

Two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome is also lined up for the Pegasus in what will be the finale of his brilliant career. They will bookend 10 horses looking to spoil either Chrome’s storybook ending or Arrogate’s coronation as his successor.

“It’s amazing,” said Smith. “I’m blessed to get the opportunity to ride a horse of this magnitude at this stage of my career and then to get to ride one in the richest race in the world…It’s incredible.”

Mike Smith basks in the moment after winning the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic on Arrogate.

For the 51-year-old, the Pegasus offers the chance of another milestone in a remarkable career that has seen him win 5,372 races, including all three legs of the Triple Crown, a record 25 Breeders’ Cup races, and more than $286 million in purse earnings—hence the nickname “Big Money Mike”.

Despite scaling back his annual work load significantly in recent years, Smith is at his best on the biggest days. He won just 55 races in 2016, but 22 of those victories came in graded stakes, 10 of them Grade 1. His 335 mounts were the fewest since he broke in with 317 in 1982.

“Oh, I live for this day. This is what it’s all about for me right now,” Smith said. “When I was younger, you live for every day. You just want to win seven, eight, nine, 10 races a day. At this stage of my career I don’t ride very many but when I do ride, it’s usually in a situation maybe not quite like this but a lot of times it is. I’m blessed to be on those kinds of horses.”

In a sport where injury and age play havoc with its athletes, Smith has not only survived, but thrived. His career has evolved from an eager young rider looking to prove himself every day to the sage veteran whom those same kind of riders seek for advice.

From 1984 to 1997, Smith averaged 1,392 mounts a year with a high of 1,766 in 1990. He has topped 1,000 only once since then, with 1,020 in 2000, and came close with 939 in 2003. In the subsequent 13 years, his average number of annual rides has dropped to 519.

“I’m just very blessed that I stayed in good enough shape. If I did anything right, that’s one thing I did early on,” Smith said. “I was just thinking about it the other day. I was in the gym thinking I’ve been going about 20 years now where I’ve been working out anywhere from five to six days a week. There’s been times when I’ve taken off in between, but I think it’s added to my longevity. I think it’s helped me a lot. I feel like I’m just as strong if not stronger right now than I was when I was in my 30s.”

Jockey Mike Smith reacts after guiding Zenyatta home in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
©Breeders’ Cup

While his dedication to fitness has kept him going, Smith is highly sought after in racing’s marquee events for his intelligence, poise and savvy. Hall of Famers Azeri and Zenyatta and multiple champion Songbird are but a few of the great horses he has attracted in recent years.

Smith was a finalist for the 2016 Eclipse Award as top jockey, 22 years after earning the second of two consecutive trophies in 1994. So far this year he has just 13 mounts with five wins, four of them in Grade 2 stakes.

“I was blessed to come around at a time when we probably had the best riding colony back in the 70s and 80s that you could ever dream of. You could name the riders and you would be in awe of them,” Smith said. “I came around when I was a young one and they were kind of where I’m at right now, so I think I just outlasted them and now I’m the guy that they go to.

“I’m just glad I kept myself in good enough shape when they do come to me that I can perform to that level,” he added. “There’s some young, strong, talented riders out there and they’re so good. I’m just happy that I’m the old man still part of it.”

Smith has many great memories at Gulfstream Park, where he was leading rider in 1994. He won the last of his three straight editions of the Florida Derby in 1996 with Unbridled’s Song, the sire of Arrogate.

“To me he’s got more stamina. His father might have been a little quicker early but, in saying that, he can be quick too,” Smith said. “They look a lot alike. They have that big, beautiful stride and they’re both very talented. The difference in the two was we never really got to see how great Unbridled’s Song was. But, man, his son has got every bit as much talent as him, if not more.”

A native of New Mexico who rose to stardom on the New York circuit before becoming a mainstay in Southern California, Smith relishes his opportunity to take part in racing’s newest, most innovative and lucrative event.

“It’s new for everyone, isn’t it? We’re all excited about what it’s going to be like, what the ratings are going to be like, what the turnout is going to be like. To race for this amount of money is crazy,” Smith said. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined we would be racing for that. I remember when $500,000 was incredible, and this is $12 million.

“If you really stop and think about it, it’s an unbelievable opportunity for racing,” he added. “I hope we make the most of it. I hope we all put on a great show and this race just continues to get more people interested in it. It might be a huge event in a few years.”

Source: Gulfstream Park

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