07/31/2013 3:34PM

Jay Hovdey: Jockey Mike Smith is the happy wanderer

Royal Delta, who won the Delaware Handicap on July 20, will have regular rider Mike Smith aboard in the Personal Ensign on Aug. 25.

Dale Romans, a man of both rhythm and blues, responded to the news that Joel Rosario would not be riding Dullahan in the defense of his Pacific Classic title by tapping his inner Joe Tex and declaring, “No one monkey stops my show.”

Good thing, too, because the show must go on, and on, and on, whether or not a particular jockey stays tied to a horse for now or forever – forever being a relative term.

The latest round of high-stakes musical saddles was a by-product of Royal Delta’s impressive victory under Mike Smith in the Delaware Handicap on July 20. Smith was so smitten by the mare’s performance that he decided to stick with her for the $600,000 Personal Ensign at Saratoga on Aug. 25, thereby abandoning the mount on Game On Dude for the $1 million Pacific Classic the same day. Agent Ron Anderson was quick to fill the void, turning down Dullahan and committing Rosario for Game On Dude. Romans, hardly moping, picked up Rafael Bejarano for the Pacific Classic.

The whole deal comes off as the agonies of the rich and famous, given the fact that Rosario (first), Bejarano (fifth), and Smith (seventh) are among the nation’s top 10 riders, and the trainers involved are Hall of Famers Bob Baffert (Game On Dude) and Bill Mott (Royal Delta), along with Eclipse Award winner Romans, all of them serving at the pleasure of owners built to endure such turbulence.

Still, you like to at least see somebody sweat, like Brad Pegram, Smith’s agent, and the man who held all the cards but could play only one.

“There was no right answer,” Pegram said. “It was an impossible decision. Either way, it was going to be a lose or a win. It’s 50-50 whether you’re right or you’re wrong.”

This was an agent in all his suffering glory, presented with one key and a choice of two bags guaranteed full of money, without being told which bag the key opened. Ron Anderson, who won national championships with Jerry Bailey and Garrett Gomez before taking on Rosario, was content to lie in wait, knowing what Pegram faced.

“When I walked out of Mott’s barn at Saratoga, Ron was standing right there,” Pegram said. “He gave me that smile that said, ‘I’m on the one you’re not.’ ”

Pegram, having cast his die, responded with a wave that came up four fingers light. It’s safe to say Anderson had Baffert’s number on speed-dial and punched it. As for Pegram’s client, Smith was likewise conflicted.

“It was probably the toughest decision like that I ever had to make,” Smith said. “I was sick to my stomach. I mean, you get the opportunity to ride a horse like Game On Dude, you sure don’t want to be taking off him. But my obligation was to Royal Delta even before the Delaware Handicap.”

It should be no surprise that Rosario and Smith are at the center of the story. Rosario, 28, has leveraged his success in California to rule the national stage with earnings of $14.8 million by his 913 mounts, entering the week. Smith, who turns 48 on Aug. 10, has made an art form of maximum impact from minimal playing time, with $7.7 million in mount earnings this year from just 211 rides. If Mariano Rivera were a jockey, he’d be Mike Smith.

Not bad for a Hall of Famer who figured he’d reached the end of all reasonable expectations upon the retirement of his most famous partner, Zenyatta, at the end of 2010.

“I think I kind of felt that way more than anyone,” Smith said. “What do you do to replace her, a mare so irreplaceable?”

For Smith and Pegram, the answer was taking flight. They have crafted a business model few jockeys would dare attempt, pressing the envelope of the mercenary athlete ready to go anywhere, anytime for the right kind of ride.

Last weekend’s bicoastal sweep of the Jim Dandy with Palace Malice at Saratoga and the Bing Crosby with Points Offthebench at Del Mar was only the latest in Smith’s giddy tour of the 2013 American stakes landscape. Among those 211 rides have been wins in the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Charles Town Classic with Game On Dude, the Ashland and American Oaks on Emollient, the Kentucky Oaks and Coaching Club American Oaks on Princess of Sylmar, and the Belmont Stakes with Palace Malice.

“I feel like I’ve been on the go fairly steady for the last five or six months,” said Smith, who calls California home.

The idea of almost weekly commercial flights in today’s air-travel climate is daunting, even if you can curl up in a first-class seat. Smith has it down to a science.

“I treat a plane flight like a mini-vacation,” Smith said. “I take my neck pillow, some music, a little something to read, and I’m out. Then they wake me up and serve me breakfast. I get off, ride a race, get back on, and they serve me dinner, then get back home and do it all again. I could turn it around and make myself feel tired just thinking about it. But really, I feel very privileged.”

It helps that earlier this year, Smith underwent sinus surgery.

“I had a deviated septum and a big polyp growing in there – I was miserable all the time,” Smith said. “I could hardly get any rest at all, even in my own bed, because I couldn’t breathe.

“I get dizzy from all the air I get now,” Smith added with a laugh. “I feel like a different person, and I know that’s played a big part in me being able to travel so well.”

With his commitment to Royal Delta in the Personal Ensign, Smith is looking at another big weekend when he rides Palace Malice the day before in the $1 million Travers. But that’s not until Aug. 24-25. What’s he going to do until then?

“Dickie Small used to put Concern on a van and drive him around before a race, he liked shipping so much,” Smith said, referring to the heroes of the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic. “Concern would come charging off the van, ready to run. I might have to take a little flight somewhere between now and then, just to stay sharp.”

Matthew Ellis More than 1 year ago
MIke made the right decision ones going on to win her race and the Breeders cup the other going to be upset now or later. So Rosario can have the mount fee and be giving the excuses
john will More than 1 year ago
No one pull's the trigger just right like Mike Smith.
Dee Englehart More than 1 year ago
Mike Smith is the one jockey who has proven that to be successful as a jockey it takes more than talent. You have to ride with your heart as much as skill and that is exactly what he has done. I doubt there are other jockeys who would fly all over to ride the best horses in the sport like he has been doing. I'm not worried about him regaining the mount on Game on Dude because the owners and Bob Baffert have definitely noticed the difference with the Dude since Mike took the mount. Mike made the right decision to honor his commitment to Royal Delta but I do agree that she is no Zenyatta. There will never be another Zenyatta. She was one of a kind!
Bill Kaup More than 1 year ago
Well, you know that the Dude may not care for Delmar as much as he likes Santa Anita. Dullahan is a true synthetic specialist and there will be value there because of Dude's presence. Smith knows that Royal Delta is pretty much a lock in the Personal Ensign. Not too sure about Dude. Smith made the right move. Don't think he won't get the mount back on Dude because he probably will.
Jim Qaukey More than 1 year ago
As much as I like RD she is on Zenyatta but she is a very awesome horse , I think Mike made a mistake getting off the Dude , this years BCC looks like as of now will have top class horses , Fort Larned , Game on Dude , i dont think Royal Delta can beat them at 1 1/4 and Joel Rosario is not getting off the Dude now he can be the only jockey to win a World Cup and Kentucky Derby and BCC in the same year and Mike Smith just may have handed it to him !!
morton erskine More than 1 year ago
Smart move by Smith to stick with Royal Delta. Reason?...... Royal Delta already run a bad one. Game On Dude due for one. ...... May not hit the board at Del Mar!!!!!
Jim Qaukey More than 1 year ago
If u believe that the son of Awesome Agian and grade 1 winner and leading money earning in the west coasts will not hit the board , ur very must a idiot !!!! , the only way he doesn't hit the board if his gate doesn't open LOL !!!
morton erskine More than 1 year ago
Keep grinding out those two dollar show bets Jim. You're doing noble work !
Cavonnier More than 1 year ago
It's an absolutely sad day and time when horseracing is experiencing such tough times, that one of the identifiable publications is sticking it to its loyal fan base. By trying to charge members/casual readers, to the sport, money to read/use things that have been FREE for years, is criminal. I am not sure about the economic hardships the DRF must be experiencing, but charging the loyal racing fan extra, for traditionally free material, is a stroke of absurdity. I find it over ironic the number of complaints read on this web-site about how unusually high take out numbers for tracks is killing the sport's growing popularity. This high take rate is something that has been condemned by this site and its numerous writers. So with being known and understood, what does the DRF decide to do, in a critical time of the sport, lets charge the average/loyal racing fan for our content. Please defend how you at DRF are any different than the racetrack RIPPING off the public with high take out rates and now charging silly rates for use on your website? See the hypocrisy that exists in this sport, is killing it. Those who are entrusted with helping the sport, the DRF, is slowly continuing to kill the sport through its GREED! Shame on this website and those who support this change. At the risk of your loyal readers and horse racing fans, you are putting money in your pockets at the expense of those who support this site and sports, the fans! Thank you DRF for contributing to the demise of the sport through your greed!
Benjamin H. More than 1 year ago
stepnen smith More than 1 year ago
grow up you fool, they are trying to make money in a new world, digital, if you cant afford 10 bucks a month for extra info what are you betting with?
morton erskine More than 1 year ago
Like to see P Val get some quality mounts now and shut all these critics up !!!!
Benjamin H. More than 1 year ago
He will win a couple of claiming races at best!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is there a record for the jockey with wins at the most tracks in a year? He could make that record fall if he wanted to.
zerosumzen More than 1 year ago
Prior commitment to RD. No way Smith is not on Game On Dude this BC Classic.