08/07/2002 11:00PM

Mr. Smith goes to California

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DEL MAR, Calif. - If Mike Smith thinks he's such a California guy, after more than a year as a regular on the circuit, how come he's still got New York tags on his truck? When is he going to change his cell phone number from that 516 area code? Is he ever going to wear short pants? And isn't it about time that he make the ultimate California commitment and buy a piece of over-priced real estate?

"I love it here. I really do," Smith said Thursday morning on the Del Mar backstretch. "I've just never been comfortable wearing shorts, even when I rode in Miami."

Okay, so we cut him some slack on the pants. The rest will follow in time. For his part, Smith still is amazed that he was able to tear himself away from a 12-year career in New York. The fact that he has done so well in his new surroundings has him walking around in a grateful daze.

"I'm kind of a creature of habit," Smith said. "Once I'm somewhere I'll stay forever, as long as you want me. In my business, I think it's a good thing. I've seen too many guys with real talent make too many moves. Things might not be going to well that month and they're up and gone."

But then, in the spring of 2001, the New York chapter of Smith's career came to an end. He hooked up with California-based agent Brian Beach and loaded the truck.

Smith was 35 when he made the move West. On Saturday, he will celebrate his 37th birthday by riding a full card at Del Mar, entertaining his family, and then hitting the sack early enough to be fresh for the mount on Azeri, the nation's leading handicap mare, the next afternoon in the Clement Hirsch Handicap.

Smith gives Azeri a ton of credit for his growing profile in California.

When he arrived, there were no guarantees, despite the fact that he displayed a dazzling resume that included two Eclipse Awards, six Breeders' Cup wins, and earnings of nearly $140 million by his mounts.

Impressive, yes. But in a room full of Hall of Famers and established stars such as Laffit Pincay, Chris McCarron, Eddie Delahoussaye, Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux, and Alex Solis, Smith was basically just another pretty face. A conversation between a local trainer and his client might go something like this:

Trainer (shaking his head): "We can't get Laffit, Kent, Eddie or Chris, but the guy who rode Holy Bull, Sky Beauty, Lure, Heavenly Prize, Unbridled's Song, and more than 4,000 winners is open. How about him?

Owner (with a sigh): "Yeah. I guess. If that's the best you can do."

Smith cut his teeth in his native New Mexico and rode throughout the Midwest before settling in New York. In earlier California forays he won such races as the Californian, the San Juan Capistrano, the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita, the Breeders' Cup Classic at Hollywood Park. As a result, there was no real learning curve when he came to stay.

"You've just got to be in a race a whole lot sooner here than at Belmont," Smith noted. "At Belmont, you can break and sit. Here, you want to get them running before you even think about sitting, even if you're on a closer."

Smith is lucky to be on anything at all. His accident in March of 1998 was bad enough, when he shattered his shoulder at Gulfstream Park. He recovered quickly, though, and was leading the standings at Saratoga in August of 1998 when he fractured two vertebrae. He spent several months in a brace.

"The back is good," Smith said. "I work out a lot to keep it strong. Anyway, going to the gym is like my hobby. My getaway. I meet people who don't know who I am. I just love talking about them. Everyday things."

By now, Smith's squinty, choirboy countenance has become familiar to local fans. (He forever looks as if he is worried about something, but can't recall exactly what.) He rides regularly for a host of top stables, including those of Richard Mandella, Laura de Seroux, Wayne Lukas, and Paco Gonzalez.

Smith has become heir apparent to some of the horses Chris McCarron left behind when he retired last June. The biggest windfall has been the mount on Came Home, who will give Smith his first ride in the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 25. New York is beginning to feel long ago and far away.

"Something inside me said it was time to move on," Smith said.

"I was going through a divorce. I'd come back from my back injury, and I was doing well, even though some people thought I was in a slump. I just wasn't on top like I'd been before.

"Anyway, I'd always wanted to come to California, ever since I was a little kid. So I decided to come out here, give it a hard go, and see what happened."