04/26/2009 11:00PM

Smith right at home on a longshot

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Barbara D. Livingston
Jockey Mike Smith rides Chocolate Candy during a workout Monday morning at Churchill Downs.

Go ahead and envy Garrett Gomez if you want to. Fantasize about being Frankie Dettori, just for a day. Me, I wanna be like Mike.

Run down a checklist of the things a jockey hopes to do at some point in a career, and Mike Smith has done them all. Hall of Fame? Check. Eclipse Awards? Check. Breeders' Cups? Check, times 12. Kentucky Derby? Big-time check, in 2005, with the 50-1 bomb named Giacomo.

Smith is 43, so everything from here on is gravy. He's still hungry, though, and there's no sign he is ready to step aside. Smith rides Zenyatta, the best-known female racehorse in North America. He dates Chantal Sutherland, the best-known female jockey/spokesmodel. He's also the resident philosopher of the Animal Planet reality series "Jockeys" and on-camera mentor to the show's teenage heartthrob, Joe Talamo.

The only thing that would elevate Smith's current profile even higher is winning the 135th Kentucky Derby on Saturday with Chocolate Candy, runner-up to Pioneerof the Nile in the Santa Anita Derby. Although he has won three minor stakes, Chocolate Candy has yet to penetrate many short lists of Derby contenders, but some very smart handicappers are not ruling him out. Stranger things have happened, or did I already mention Giacomo?

Unlike Giacomo, who was a special project for Smith in the months leading up to the '05 Derby, Chocolate Candy is a recent acquaintance. They have never collaborated in a race, and have joined for only a handful of workouts. Not surprisingly, Smith likes what he sees so far.

"He's got a great disposition, a great mind, just a cool horse to get on," Smith said between races last Friday night at Hollywood Park. "Nothing seems to faze him. Just a classy individual, and he really seems to be coming around."

As he spoke, Smith was wearing the silks of Ann and Jerry Moss, which figures to be his lounge wear of choice, since the Mosses own both Giacomo and Zenyatta. In fact, he was getting on one of their more modest runners in the next event on the program. For Chocolate Candy, he will fly the colors of Jenny Craig, while under orders from trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

"When I worked him the first time in Kentucky, he went from the seven-eighths to the seven-eighths," Smith noted. "He relaxed really well, but when I want him to turn on, he turns on, and comes with a real powerful closing kick."

Were it not for a commitment to champion Stardom Bound in the Ashland Stakes the same day, Smith says he would have been aboard Chocolate Candy in the Santa Anita Derby. Joel Rosario, just 24 and on the rise in Southern California, rode instead, then was bounced in favor of Smith.

"And I'm sure if he'd have won that day, Joel would have kept the mount," Smith said. "The kid did his job. And I'm not saying I'm going to move the horse up on him. I don't think he needs to do a whole lot more. He's training good, he looks good, and I know he's gonna finish."

Before breaking through with Giacomo, Smith had three seconds, a third, and no regrets from 11 Derby mounts.

"I thought with all my seconds I rode really well, and we did all we could do," Smith said. "Lion Heart ran his butt off. Smarty Jones was just too good. I thought Proud Citizen ran huge against War Emblem. And my old buddy Prairie Bayou ran big, but Sea Hero just freaked. He took to the Churchill track that day like nobody else did, while Prairie Bayou had trouble with it. But he was so classy he just kept coming and grounded out second."

At three months shy of 44, Smith would be the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since the 54-year-old Bill Shoemaker steered Ferdinand through that hole in the stretch to win in 1986. Smith is a fitness fiend who tries to neutralize the ravages of early middle age by spending hours at the gym. Even more now, probably, since Sutherland went back to her native Canada to ride, leaving Mikey to pine alone in desolate L.A. At least, that's what Smith gets from some of the fans who have watched the romance unfold on "Jockeys."

"Believe it or not, I do get people asking me how I'm doing with her gone, what am I gonna do, is it gonna work out, or did I get my closet space back," Smith said, mixing a smile with a shake of his head. "I mean, I'm forty-something. Yeah, I miss her, but I gotta live. I can't just hold my breath till she comes back."

"Jockeys" has three cast members with live Derby mounts. In addition to Smith, Gomez rides Pioneerof the Nile, and Talamo will be aboard Wood Memorial winner I Want Revenge. The unreality of the Derby meets reality TV.

"They'll be filming during the week, and it will be a little hard to concentrate," Smith said. "What little time you normally have to yourself won't be there. I've let them know, if they want me to go have dinner with Garrett and talk to him about the Derby, the answer is no. It wouldn't be something I do. I'm not going to talk to him about my horse, and he's sure not gonna talk to me about his.

"And I'm sure not gonna sit there with Talamo and tell him how to ride the race," Smith added. "That's the last thing I want to do. You hear someone say, 'Oh, it's just like riding any other race.' My butt! Anyone who thinks that, they're in trouble. This is the Derby, man. And you've got to learn how to ride it. If you're fortunate to win it first time up to bat, then hooray for you. But you've got to earn it."