NEW YORK (AP) — There’s a reason Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith is in demand when owners and trainers pick riders for the elite in thoroughbred racing.
The 52-year-old Smith just knows what to do aboard a horse.
When to move it. When to take back. When to let the colt or filly have its way on the track. When to go to the whip.
Smith has seen it all, and he knows how to handle the pressure.
Take Saturday, for example. Smith faced the pressure of helping Justify take that final step to become the sport’s 13th Triple Crown winner.
The world was watching on television and the internet and 90,327 fans had packed Belmont Park to cheer for the chestnut colt who had captured the attention of the horse racing world by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness after not racing as a 2-year-old.
No one had done that before.
The pressure was intense and “Big Money Mike” reacted like a veteran. He took a nap during the long 13-race card.
It worked to perfection as Smith put an exclamation point on his illustrious career, guiding Justify to victory in the 1½-mile race that was over with an eighth of a mile to go.
“I felt great, and that probably wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” Smith said. “I’d have been probably running through a wall or something.”
In sweeping the big three races for 3-year-olds, Smith becomes the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. It’s the pinnacle of a career that has seen him win more than 5,400 races, including a record 26 in the Breeders’ Cup, and now seven Triple Crown races. His mounts have earned more than $310 million.
Not bad for a kid who dropped out of high school to become a jockey.
“I think my mother’s happy now,” Smith said. “She’s all right, she’s OK with it now.”
This was another perfect ride. Breaking from the less-than-desired No. 1 post, Smith gunned Justify to the lead and never looked back.
“He probably broke better today than he has out of the other two (Derby and Preakness), to be honest with you,” Smith said. “He left there today very good which was very important. He was able to go ahead and get a comfortable lead and let him get in that rhythm of his.”
Once that happened, the other nine colts in the field didn’t have a chance.
When fans roared at him in appreciation on the way back to the winner’s circle, Smith calmly pointed to Justify.
“Mike great, obviously, and Justify is probably a great horse,” said trainer Bill Mott, whose Hofburg finished third, 3½ behind Justify. “I mean, they’re a good combination and they got the job done. We saw another Triple Crown winner. A lot of people are happy about it.”
Smith is clearly at the top of his game in a sport where jockeys are riding less and less in their 50s.
The New Mexico native won 15 Grade 1 races last year, including nine with Bob Baffert, the trainer of Justify and now a two-time Triple Crown winner.
Baffert broke a 37-year drought in 2015 with American Pharoah.
What’s ahead for Smith remains to be seen. He has reduced his riding schedule in recent years to concentrate on riding the sport’s best horses. He has ridden such outstanding horses as Zenyatta, Royal Delta, Songbird, Shared Belief and Game On Dude, but riding Justify has taken him to a new level.
Victor Espinoza, who rode American Pharoah to a Triple Crown, did a television commercial leading up the Triple Crown races this year. It shows a horse eating the flowers off a women’s hat and the jockey reimbursing her in the winner’s circle with Quick Pay.
The one thing Smith isn’t looking at is the grind of having six or seven mounts a card and early morning workouts. He’s been there and done that.
His days now are spent staying in shape with a rigorous workout schedule that keeps him in top condition to use his vast experience in handling the best horses in the business.
The way things went this year, don’t be surprised to see Smith riding a good one in next year’s Triple Crown races.