03/11/2010 12:00AM

Riding with the weight of perfection

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ARCADIA, Claif. - One day between races at Santa Anita, Mike Smith was sitting on the bench in front of his jocks' room cubicle. His eyes were closed, and his head was swaying, side to side, keeping time to the tune of some internal rhapsody. His valet, former jockey Raul Ramirez, was more amused than concerned.

"What are you doing?" asked Ramirez.

Smith came back to Earth.

"I'm riding Zenyatta," he said.

The good ones will do that to even the most seasoned riders. Moments spent in their company are lived in vivid technicolor, the memories intense beyond words.

Smith awoke last Nov. 8, having just won the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard his remarkable mare. The view from the top of the racing world was fine. But then, after a splash of cold water, he was asked to say goodbye.

Things change. Two months later, Ann and Jerry Moss decided Zenyatta belonged not in a grassy pasture, laden with foal, but between the lines, doing her true thing. Now that promise is on the verge of fulfillment, and Saturday at Santa Anita, in the $250,000 Santa Margarita Handicap, Zenyatta and Smith will try to pick up where they left off last fall.

"Watching the Olympics the other day, I noticed the skiers, before they competed, would go through the course in their mind," Smith said earlier this week. "They'd be waving back and forth with their head and hands, visualizing. I do that with her all the time, sometimes even when I'm driving, and I've got to stop myself. Enough already. What's gonna happen is gonna happen. Let her rest. Put her back in the stall."

After a string of 11 perfect outcomes aboard the 14-0 Zenyatta, Smith, 44, has become indelibly connected to the fortunes of the champion mare, just as Eddie Arcaro was with Citation, Bill Shoemaker with Swaps, or Milo Valenzuela with the reign of Kelso.

Smith and Zenyatta first collaborated in April 2008 to win the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. Over the last 23 months, both mornings and afternoons, the rider has thrilled to Zenyatta's evolution, from an oversized, absurdly talented ingenue to a breathtaking creature of regal poise.

"We used to work her with two horses," Smith said. "When she'd go by the first one she'd think, 'Eh, this is boring,' and just go through the motions. Now you break one off three, four in front of her, and zoom! She's locked in, in a good way. And when I ask her to finish up, she's all business."

Zenyatta's style of coming from far afield tends to create its own drama for her jockey.

"There are naturally more decisions to make, just because she has to pass the whole field almost every time she runs," Smith said. "The great thing about her is that she's like a light switch. I can turn her off and on any time, which is amazing for such a big horse."

Smith learned about Zenyatta's gears the hard way, in that first Apple Blossom together.

"The communication wasn't a hundred percent yet," Smith said. "It wasn't even turning for home, and I thought I'd left her way too much to do. I went from picking her up to going, 'Hyahhh!' and slapping her on the shoulder. Whoa! The next thing I'm thinking is that I hit the front way too soon. I learned then that it's baby steps with her.

"So the first part of the race I'll put my hands way down and keep them way back, palms down, and let her get into that big rhythm," Smith said. "If she wants to pick it up a little sooner than I think we should, I can just lean back without moving my hands. When I want her to pick it up I sit way up on her so I can look over her head. I'll kind of lean forward, bow over her a little, and she'll just run underneath me.

"After that, if I'm looking for somewhere to go, or go around, I'll reach up and gather her a little bit, and there she goes again," he said. "If I need more, I'll pick it up a little higher. If I need more than that, I show her the stick, and, man, there's another gear. They just keep coming. If I hit her a time or two, she'll jump right then and there. Then up come the ears and she's loping on home again."

And again, and again and again, as reliable as the dawn. The racing fan in Mike Smith never tires of Zenyatta highlights.

"Watching most big races afterward, you always kind of watch yourself," Smith said. "You might even think, 'Yeah, I rode a pretty good race.' With her, it's like I'm not even on her. I'm going, 'Wow,' all the time. Somebody will say, 'Hey, great ride,' and I'll say, 'Me? Did you see what she did?'"

Before Zenyatta came along, Smith's Hall of Fame r sum was already crammed full of stars such as Holy Bull, Azeri, Sky Beauty, Devil His Due, Lure, Inside Information, and Coronado's Quest, going back in a career of 28 years that began in his native New Mexico. As good as they were, they were all beaten at one time or another, a fact that keeps Smith from taking anything for granted or from looking ahead to the anticipated showdown with Rachel Alexandra at Oaklawn on April 9.

"You still have to go out there and run, so you worry about the little things," he said. "A lot of things can happen and do happen in a race. So let's just take it one race at a time and get through Saturday. I do believe, though, that her first race back could be pretty impressive.

"I hate to say it, but it is what it is," Smith said. "If I didn't know no better, I'd say she's coming back even bigger, stronger, even better. She's more forward, more intelligent as each day goes by. Really, it's kind of scary. When you get a 6-year-old mare as healthy and happy as she is, there's nothing like it."