06/03/2011 3:07PM

Mike Smith has earned luxury of picking his own spots


During a memorable 2010, Mike Smith spent the first week of June winning the Belmont Stakes for the first time, aboard Drosselmeyer, and then working Zenyatta six furlongs at Hollywood Park in anticipation of her pending start in the Vanity Handicap.

That was a pretty good week.

One year later, Smith’s most significant accomplishment during this first week of June will end up being the pass he got from the Hollywood Park stewards for his ride on the disqualified Amazombie in the Los Angeles Handicap on Memorial Day. Accompanied by fellow Hall of Famer Laffit Pincay, Smith made his case on Thursday.

“I wasn’t taking any chances,” Smith said. “I was going in there with heavy artillery.”

Mission accomplished.

Not that a penalty would have meant that much. At 45, coming off a year in which he rode both the Horse of the Year and a classic winner, Smith is enjoying the deserved fruits of a bountiful career while picking his spots. He is long past needing to be in the hunt for the meet’s leading rider. He has secured the good will of most of the best barns in the nation. And his number – or at least the number of his agent, Brad Pegram – is close at hand when a stakes situation calls for a cool hand under pressure.

Through the first six months of the year, Smith had ridden 174 races, compared with the more than 500 ridden by A-list jockeys such as Ramon Dominguez, Julien Leparoux, and Joel Rosario. In the face of such relative inactivity, Smith’s most pressing challenge is keeping the instrument tuned. He’s a gym rat, though, so he has got an advantage. Strength is never an issue. And if anyone is worried about Smith’s wind, go run up and down the hills above Sierra Madre with him every day.

“I’ve got to do it man,” Smith said, taking no particular credit. “These guys I’m riding against keep getting younger.”

Smith will be heading to New York this week to ride on the Belmont Stakes program. And while he does not have a mount in the Belmont Stakes, he has high hopes for the Bob Baffert-trained Irrefutable in the True North.

“It doesn’t seem like I’m home much anymore, but I’m having a wonderful time on these journeys,” Smith said. “I’ve wanted to do this for so long, and even though I’m doing well I don’t have a lot of every day business. It’s a great to take an advantage of these opportunities.”

Earlier in May, after finishing 17th in the Kentucky Derby aboard Twinspired, Smith hopped over to England to ride at Folkstone, where he won a race for American trainer Wesley Ward. While there, during an interview with veteran racing broadcaster Jim McGrath, Smith revealed that he had learned a new word as pertains to the lay of the unfamiliar course: “Undulating.”

“It was a blast,” Smith said. “And those people know their horse racing. I was in a little town at a little track, and you wouldn’t believe how many Zenyatta pictures I signed.”

Smith and Zenyatta ended their three-season partnership last November with a close second to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, marking the only loss of Zenyatta’s 20-race career. Smith was aboard for 17 of her races.

“As far as the action goes, getting up for the big day whenever she ran, it’s a big void, especially when it comes to the nerves and the pressure and the stress,” Smith said. “Some of that I don’t miss.

“But I’m never going to let her out of my life,” he added. “Every chance I get I’ll go see her. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to ride one of her babies.”

Smith paid his respects to Zenyatta at Lane’s End Farm in Lexington, Ky., during his trip to the Derby. Big Mama was just getting started on her Bernardini foal at the time.

“I swear you could have taken her out of her paddock there and into the paddock at the racetrack and she would have won for fun,” Smith said. “I wanted to see if she remembered me,” he went on. “So I didn’t take any peppermints. I just called to her. I thought she might be over it all, but then she kind of looked at me and over she comes. She rubbed all over me for a while, we took a couple pictures, and then she’d had enough.”

After winning 10 Breeders’ Cup races, two Eclipse Awards, and all three Triple Crown events, Smith will try adding to his personal highlight reel when he rides at England’s fabled Royal Ascot Festival beginning June 14. Any victory there would make for a neat, 20-year bookend to the Irish 2000 Guineas of 1991, won by Smith aboard the American-trained Fourstars Allstar.

“I was young, and I knew it was a big deal,” Smith said. “But it’s like you know what’s going on but you really don’t. I literally had to jump on a plane after the race to get to London so I could get back to New York to ride the next day. Everything kind of flew by in a blur.”

Twenty years is a drop in history’s bucket to British and Irish fans. While at Folkstone Smith was asked often about the Guineas.

“I look back at the guys I rode against in that race and it‘s amazing to think about it,” Smith added. “There was Lester Piggott, Stevie Cauthen, Christy Roche, Pat Eddery, Mick Kinane.”

An impressive list, true enough. Smith laughed when he was reminded that they are all retired.

“Why do you think I keep running up that damn mountain,” he replied.