05/04/2012 12:16PM

Smith enters 19th Kentucky Derby still on top of his game

Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Giacomo (left), Mike Smith up, outduels Closing Argument to win the 2005 Kentucky Derby, still the only Derby win of Smith’s career.

Mike Smith knew something was wrong the second the music stopped. It was Derby Day 1994, and as far as Smith was concerned the 120th running of America’s most famous horse race was Holy Bull’s to lose. Only trouble was, as the gray colt took his place in the post parade in front of 100,000 fans, he clearly was not the keen, looking-for-trouble Holy Bull who blew away his opposition in the Florida Derby and the Blue Grass.

“I was extremely high on him that day,” Smith said, the disappointment still palpable. “I thought this was it – if I’m ever going to win one it’s today. My main concern was actually staying on him in the post parade, because he was very difficult. He liked to play so much that I knew when they got through singing ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and the crowd went wild I’d better really be tied on.”

Then the music stopped.

“He didn’t even move,” Smith said.

And that was that. Holy Bull left the gate spinning his wheels over the cuppy Churchill Downs track, never picked up the bit, and finished a distant 12th to Go for Gin.

At the time Smith was the leading rider in the land, winner of Eclipse Awards in 1993 and 1994 and a dozen years into what was becoming an exemplary career. But even the most successful jockey understands that a colt like Holy Bull is a rare beast. With Smith on board, Holy Bull swept through the rest of 1994, winning the Met Mile, the Travers, the Woodward and Horse of the Year. Rewarding, yes. But the Derby still hurt. It’s the Derby every jockey wants to win.

Which is why it will surprise absolutely no one to know that in this day of instant access to all manner of digital delights, Mike Smith carries a recent photo of the gray stallion Giacomo on his iPhone, a handy reminder of the day Holy Bull’s most famous son carried Smith to victory in the 2005 Kentucky Derby, at odds of 50-1.

“Look at him, almost white now like his daddy,” Smith said with a flash of his familiar grin. “Damn right he’s got a special place in my heart.”

Of course, there’s always room for more. To that end Smith, 46, will be riding the lightly raced Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister in the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday for owner Ahmed Zayat and trainer Bob Baffert. They could go favored, even in the face of the formidable Union Rags and the unbeaten Wood Memorial winner Gemologist, not to mention the fact that Bodemeister will attempt to become the first Derby winner since 1882 without racing experience as a 2-year-old. Then again, Smith is the last guy who needs to be told the Derby is a tough nut to crack. If Holy Bull couldn’t get the job done . . .

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“Some of them get discouraged, and they just quit running,” Smith said. “But some of them get over the track extremely well, and that’s what you’re hoping for. Bob said he likes the way the colt has been handling the track, which is great to hear. I’ll find out pretty quick on Saturday.”

Bodemeister will be Smith’s 19th ride in the Derby, dating back to 1984, when he and Pine Circle chased home Swale and Laffit Pincay. On June 12, Smith will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his first win, which came aboard the 4-year-old gelding Future Man at Santa Fe Downs in his native New Mexico. The winning purse that day was about $1,400.

At the time, the profession was dominated by veterans Laffit Pincay, Angel Cordero, and Jorge Velasquez, along with the emerging talents of Chris McCarron, Pat Day, and Eddie Delahoussaye. Even the ageless Bill Shoemaker, 49 at the time, was to be reckoned with as the regular rider of 1981 Horse of the Year John Henry, among others.

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Breaking into the New York market, Smith eventually took his place among the game’s elite competitors. He rode with regularity for the name trainers at Belmont and Saratoga, including Shug McGaughey, Bill Mott, Nick Zito, and Allen Jerkens, a living legend who’s been known to let his postrace emotions show.

“He only got mad at me once,” Smith said of Jerkens. “But he got the wrong horse. He yelled at me for going wide. ‘It wasn’t me, Chief,’ I said. ‘I was laying second.’ ‘No you weren’t!’ he said.”

Smith’s reply?

“OK, if you say so.”

This is classic Smith, going along to get along, accommodating a personality more suited to the chorus than his starring role on center stage. He confesses to a shy reluctance early on to join the adult world.

“Heck, I left home when I was 14, so I was growing up everywhere I went,” Smith said. “And it took me a long time to grow up.”

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To hear Smith tell it, he loved every minute, a small kid in a big world, beating the bushes for mounts in Nebraska, riding cold winters in Chicago at Hawthorne, even dodging the INS on the backstretch of Minnesota’s Canterbury Downs, natural born citizen that he is. He laughed at the memory.

“They were doing a raid one morning, and I was just walking down the road,” Smith said. “A trainer up ahead yells out at me, ‘Run, Mike, run!’ I thought there was a loose horse, but he was just goofing with me. When they tackled me from behind I thought I’d been hit by the horse, but it was the agents. I had me a moustache and a lot more dark hair at the time, so I guess I was what they were looking for. I told them, ‘My name’s Mike Smith.’ They said, ‘Sure, that’s what they all say.’ ”

In the shorthand of horse racing, Smith has found himself pigeonholed at one time or another as being a specialist with top fillies. This was supported with a list that includes Inside Information, Sky Beauty, and Heavenly Prize, as well as Azeri and Zenyatta, both voted Horse of the Year. But a rider does not make it to the Hall of Fame without the whole package. You don’t win more than 5,000 races – including 15 in Breeders’ Cup events – just riding good fillies.

Besides the father-son combo of Holy Bull and Giacomo, the list of Smith’s memorable colts includes the tempestuous Coronado’s Quest, the durable Devil His Due, turf freak Lure, Preakness winner Prairie Bayou, sprint star Cherokee Run, and the opportunistic Drosselmeyer, winner of the Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic with Smith at the wheel.

In Bodemeister, Smith has found a partner who fits neatly with his Kentucky Derby experience. Twice in the past decade, the rider ended up at Churchill Downs aboard fast, tractable colts who did everything right on the most important day of their lives. It wasn’t their fault Smith doesn’t have two more Derbies to his name.

In 2002, riding the Lexington Stakes winner Proud Citizen, Smith gave chase to the fleet War Emblem through what turned out to be crawling fractions, at least by Derby standards. Proud Citizen never caught the leader but was best of the rest.

In 2004, Smith was savoring his trip aboard Hollywood Futurity winner Lion Heart, cruising easily on the lead over a sloppy track only a few in the field of 18 could truly handle. One of them, unfortunately, was Smarty Jones, who pursued Lion Heart at a dangerous arm’s length.

“I had so much horse under me,” Smith said. “At the three-eighths I honestly felt like I couldn’t lose. Then Smarty Jones came to me and went right on by, like he was in a different league.” Lion Heart was easily second.

Beyond his Derby record, the last decade of Smith’s life has been the stuff of a juicy biopic. In no particular order he was elected to the Hall of Fame, ended his marriage, restlessly migrated from California to the East Coast and back again, starred in a TV reality show with his girlfriend, founded a wine label with fellow jockey Alex Solis, rode Zenyatta to the top of the racing world, and ran briefly afoul of the law.

The wine – “Jinetes” – Smith describes as an “expensive hobby.” He recommends the syrah. The reality show was “Jockeys” on Animal Planet and the girlfriend was Chantal Sutherland, a headline jockey in her own right.

“I said no to the show at first,” Smith said. “When we decided to do it, I warned her it would be the end for us.” He was right.

Zenyatta’s unbeaten run, right up to the bittersweet moment she narrowly lost the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in her 20th start, curried more attention for Smith than he’d received his entire career. His ongoing relationship with the great mare remains one of racing’s great love stories – Smith visits Zenyatta in Kentucky whenever possible – and he was ever graceful in deflecting all the praise in her direction no matter what major media came his way.

The heat of celebrity can sting as well as warm, though. Smith made a different kind of headline in July 2011 when he was charged with a DUI on opening night of the Del Mar meet. The penalties included a license suspension, a series of classes, and 10 days of house arrest.

“I was able to keep working, but I had to wear the tracking signal on my ankle,” Smith said. “I went straight home from the track, which in a way was good for me. I’ve got a nice house, but I get awful restless just being in it alone. The experience forced me to stay home and think about what happened.”

Smith was lucky and knows it. Whatever alterations he subsequently made in his personal life have seemed to translate well on track, for he is riding with the flair of jockeys half his age.

“I’m in a good place right now – mentally, physically,” he said. “I just want to keep that going. For whatever reason, it’s all working, and I just want to keep it that way.”

Smith concedes self-reflection is not his favorite pastime, although as an athlete in a dangerous profession, this might be a good thing. The navel-gazing Hamlet could not have hit the same hole Smith did with Giacomo in the 2005 Derby stretch. While Smith has the luxury of riding less now – 500 mounts or so a year in the best possible events his agent, Brad Pegram, can find – the reduced activity finds his mind sometimes wandering.

“I was at Del Mar not long ago, just enjoying the beautiful view, waiting to meet some friends for lunch,” Smith said. “I got to wondering about what I’d do when I retire. I mean, I don’t really do anything except go to the track and go to the gym. I never played golf. I supposed I might want to try some racing TV. But I’d really never given it any thought.”

The reason, Smith conceded, is probably because he’s still very much a professional Thoroughbred jockey, with mountains yet to climb. The last 10 years of Smith’s career have been, in many ways, more fulfilling than the first 20. Nothing would be better than to add a second Kentucky Derby with Bodemeister, an exceptional colt who would appear to lack for nothing except experience. Smith responded with a knowing gleam in his eye.

“I guess that’s where I come in,” he said.