12/02/2010 11:56AM

Q&A: Zenyatta's jockey Mike Smith

Barbara D. Livingston

Hall of Fame jockey rode Zenyatta in her final 17 races, 16 of which resulted in victories. He was interviewed at his cubicle in the jockeys’ room at Hollywood Park last Sunday, just hours after returning from an international jockey competition in Japan.

Birthdate: Aug. 10, 1965, in Roswell, N.M.

Family: Single

Zenyatta’s retirement ceremony is next Sunday here at Hollywood Park. How do you think you will feel watching that? “It’s going to be hard to make it through it without choking up. I’m choking up now, just thinking about it.”

How often have you been to the barn to see her since her final race in the Breeders’ Cup Classic? “I’ve been back there three or four times, and it would have been more, except I’ve been traveling a lot. She looks incredible, all dappled out, brilliant. I don’t know how John Shirreffs does it.”

Speaking of traveling, how was your trip to Tokyo? “It was overwhelming. When they introduced me for the jockey competition, they went crazy. I was wearing the Mosses’ silks. They were screaming her name. ‘Zenyatta. Zenyatta.’ They were holding up signs of her, pictures of her. Fortunately, I had time to sign things for them. Some of the pictures they had were pretty cool shots of her. I signed all kinds of stuff. I’m glad there was a fence between us or I might have got crushed.”

Her fans are quite devoted, aren’t they? “I mean, just look at this stuff here. All these letters here, these are just the ones that arrived today. I got 10 today. I get about 10 every day. Long letters, pages and pages. Cards. From Michigan, Colorado, all over the world. They are all about her, how happy [she makes] everyone.”

What do you think were her best races? “The Apple Blossom in 2008, the first time I rode her. The Classic last year. And this year’s Classic. She lost contact with the field, then made up so much ground. It was incredible what she did.”

You were very hard on yourself after this year’s Classic, taking the blame for the loss. Now that you’ve had three weeks to reflect on things, how do you feel? “I certainly wasn’t going to blame her. I’m fine now with what I did. She got squeezed leaving there, then got all that kickback. It startled her. I don’t think she realized she was in a race until she got to the first turn. She had so much ground to make up. But you don’t want to make it up all at once. You make up a little, but not too much. Then make up a little more, but not too much. The lights were on. It wasn’t her home track. To come up half a head short after all that was incredible. If I had to do it again, I’d do something different. I can’t say I’d do the same thing, because I know that outcome. But I’m proud of the job I did. And I’m so proud of her.”

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The other real top horse you were close to was Holy Bull. How would you compare your relationship with him to Zenyatta? “He got hurt to end his career, so the immediate part of that was just concern, hoping they would save him. Fortunately I got him stopped quickly. I saw him not long ago.”

Do you think you’ll be visiting her often? “Definitely. I’ll jump the gate at Lane’s End! I’ll call Mr. Farish. I’ll go visit her every time I go to Lexington.”

When you rode her for the first time in the 2008 Apple Blossom, could you ever envision the journey on which she would take you? “Who could have? I knew I was riding something special that day. She had trained well up to the race. I thought she was something special. Sure enough, she was. She stands above it, anything and everything.”

You and David Flores are the only jockeys to ride her in a race. Describe what she felt like. “As big and tall as she is, she’s very light on her feet. She’s very athletic, so balanced. She doesn’t feel like a big, heavy horse. She feels like a gazelle.”

There was a race at Santa Anita earlier this year where you had to weave through traffic. “That was fun. She’s so agile. She’s like Walter Payton, the way he used to go in and out. After the race, I was like, ‘Look at you. You’re like a little, agile filly.’ ”

Do you appreciate a horse like her more now that you’re more towards the end of your career than the beginning? “For one to come along like her, it wouldn’t matter if it was at the beginning of your career or the end. Horses like that come along once in a rider’s life. But I’m blessed that she came along so late in my career. It makes me feel like I can keep going, and I plan on it.”

Do you think your devotion to working out has helped you as you’ve gotten older? “For me, there’s no way I would feel this good without working out. I feel it when I slack off. I’m so hard on myself. I think working out will keep me around a whole lot longer. Fitness-wise, strength-wise, I’m stronger and fitter than I’ve ever been.”

How often do you work out? “Just about every day. I just got a text from my trainer. We’re working out at 1 p.m. tomorrow. Just back from Japan. No rest. But I enjoy it. I lift four days a week, and do circuit training the other three days. And in between I hike in the mountains. I don’t lift to get huge. Once a week, though, I’ll do heavy lifting to see where I’m at.”

How much can you bench-press? “I don’t come all the way down, because I’ve broken both my shoulders. But I can do 245 pounds, which is unbelievable for someone my size.”

That’s more than twice what you weigh! “There was a lady working out next to me the other day, and she saw what I lifted and said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ On the incline, I once did 265 pounds. I like doing it. At 45, you have to be in that kind of shape to keep up with these kids. I feel like I’ve got an edge. At least I think I do, and that’s all that matters. I like knowing that when I come down the lane, if it’s a close finish, I’ll be there. But I like it better when one just takes me around there.”

Do you want to get on Zenyatta next Sunday? “I kind of hope I do. If I’m not crying too much, I’d like to. When it comes to her, I get emotional.”

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