08/03/2010 2:31PM

Zenyatta has Smith on one sweet ride

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DEL MAR, Calif. – The letters arrive from adults and children with a common theme. They all want jockey Mike Smith to bring them closer to Zenyatta, their favorite horse.

“A lot of them want to tell me how good she is,” Smith said. “They’ll write, ‘Can I please have a picture?’ I always send a picture. I pay for it. I don’t mind.”

When Smith is recognized in an airport, or about town, he often fields questions about Zenyatta.

“It’s all anyone asks,” Smith said. “Racing people and people that I meet, they want to know, what’s it like?”

What’s it like to be the regular rider of the winner of 17 consecutive races, a two-time champion, and a charismatic mare with a come-from-behind style, who seems to play to the crowd in the paddock and post parade?

The moments before and after races, when Zenyatta is just a few feet from the crowds and the subject of such adulation, are not lost on Smith, who turns 45 on Aug. 10.

The three major Southern California tracks have paddocks and walking rings that afford a close-up view of horses on their way to the racetrack. It’s the ultimate photo op for fans seeking to get closer to horses and riders. Smith said he feels the buzz before Zenyatta’s races, hearing the fans and seeing the homemade signs at Del Mar, Hollywood Park, or Santa Anita.

“I try to take a little time for it,” he said. “It’s magical. You can’t help but do it. It’s nice for the people that are looking at her and clapping for her. It’s a great feeling.”

That’s the prologue. This year, after her victories, Smith has taken to riding Zenyatta back in front of the grandstand and a furlong or so up the stretch so that the crowds can see her one more time before she is taken into the winner’s circle. Taking the long way to the winner’s circle was the idea of trainer John Shirreffs, and one the jockey quickly embraced.

The crowd reaction is always the same: Cheers as loud as the races themselves. “It’s an out-of-body experience,” Smith said. “When we do it, she’s still prancing and dancing.”

The experience will end sooner than Smith would prefer. Zenyatta is scheduled to start in Saturday’s $300,000 Clement Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar and is likely to have only two more starts before retirement. The main goal is a defense of her victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Classic will be at Churchill Downs on Nov. 6 and is expected to be her last start. A stakes at Belmont Park or Santa Anita is tentatively scheduled for early October. It is possible that Saturday’s race will be Zenyatta’s last in Southern California, where she is most adored.

Her win in the 2009 BC Classic at Santa Anita remains the defining performance of a perfect career. That, too, was supposed to be her last start before owners Jerry and Ann Moss reversed course in January and decided to campaign her for one more season in 2010.

Her season has been a victory tour of sorts and one that has only enhanced her reputation with wins at Santa Anita (Santa Margarita Handicap), Oaklawn Park (Apple Blossom Invitational), and Hollywood Park (Vanity Handicap). Smith was all smiles when Zenyatta was given retirement ceremonies at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita last fall. That may not be the case this winter.

“I don’t like to talk of it,” he said. “I can’t talk about it, not getting on her back and being able to see her. Can you imagine how it will be with her not in that stall. John looking down the shed row and her not there. I can’t imagine Mario” – groom Mario Espinoza – “coming to work and she not being there. What amazing things she’s brought to our lives.”

Smith has ridden Zenyatta in 14 of her races and all but one of her stakes. David Flores rode Zenyatta in her first three starts, but Smith took over for the 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, a day Flores rode favored El Gato Malo to a fifth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby.

Zenyatta has defined the last few years of Smith’s career, similar to the way that Holy Bull, Lure, and Skip Away were his top mounts of the 1990s and 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri and 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo were integral parts of his career in the last decade.

“I’d like to retire with her, but I feel too good,” Smith said. “If I had something I wanted to start, maybe I would consider it. I have too much left. I feel better now. I feel great.”

Smith broke two vertebrae in a spill at Saratoga in 1998, an injury that led to lingering discomfort for years. Today, he says he is careful about what he eats and exercises frequently, seeking the advice of two personal trainers.

“I’m real health-conscious as far as my eating habits and the way I manage my weight,” he said. “My back feels amazing now. It doesn’t bother me. I do strength training, cardio, and running. I’m still hiking a lot. I’m lifting more than I could ever left. I run two or three miles. I used to really overtrain.”

The approach allows him to tack 118 pounds easily, he said.

So Zenyatta may be retired this year, but the jockey will not.

“I’ve done well and I made a lot of money,” he said. “What else will I do what I love and have the same passion? What a life.”