11/04/2010 12:41PM

Zenyatta's people: Jockey Mike Smith

Benoit & Associates

Obsessive, reverent, laid back, indulgent -- the team behind the unbeaten mare reflects her quirky brilliance.

Jockey Mike Smith | Owners | Trainer | Exercise rider | Groom and hotwalker | Masseuse

If you hang around them long enough, watching her dance for him, listening to him sing to her, it becomes clear Zenyatta and Mike Smith were made for each other, and it is hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

Of course, this is easy to say now that Zenyatta has won all 19 of her races, the last 16 for Smith. To draw such an obvious conclusion is like suggesting we knew all along that dressing celebrities in sequins and paying them to dance was a good idea, or breeding a daughter of Kris S. to a rookie stallion named Street Cry was a slam-dunk natural.

But Smith was clued in early, or at least he had a pretty good idea. Their first collaboration, lest anyone forget, was on a dirt track outside the borders of California in the 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park. What the 4-year-old version of Zenyatta did that day to a field that included champion Ginger Punch and near-champion Hystericalady was enough to knock any jockey for a loop.

Zenyatta, unlike nearly every other racehorse who ever lived, does not know what it is like for a horse race not to include the imprinting treat of a winner’s circle ceremony. As ingrained habits go, winning every time you run ranks right up there.

Smith should know. He is a prisoner of his own habits. When he was a kid, back in New Mexico, young Mike would ask his mother why he did the things he did – the neatening, the arranging just so, the repetitive fussing over small things normally of inconsequential concern. While boys are by nature a whirlwind of disarray, Smith was anything but. His mother said he was always that way. She didn’t know why, but he was always that way.

“I’m definitely OCD, and have been as long as I can remember,” Smith said, admitting to self-diagnosis. “I’ll have to do the same things exactly the same way, and everything has to be exactly in the right place, or I’ll move it till it is – a plate, a piece of paper, a pencil on a desk – and keep doing it without thinking that I’m doing it.”

These would seem to be traits that could compromise the judgment of a jockey riding a huge Thoroughbred mare who comes from last place every time and must wind her way through the field. Improvisation is not a hallmark of someone dealing with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“That’s a good point,” Smith said. “And I think because I’m a little older I’ve been able to deal with that and try to manage her races so’s not to take a lot out of her.

“When you’re young, you’re just kind of a fast gun all the time, shooting away,” said Smith, a Hall of Famer and two-time national champ. “With age and time, you learn to be patient, to sit back and relax. You learn to enjoy who you are and learn to respect the animal a whole lot more.”

As far as Smith is concerned, Zenyatta has been building toward her appearance at Churchill Downs as defending champion in the Breeders’ Cup Classic ever since their first race together in that 2008 Apple Blossom. While much of the mainstream media races to catch up, Smith has been basking in her glow for more than 2 1/2 years.

“It’s been a little overwhelming at times, all the TV requests and everything,” he said. “At the same time I’m excited. I can’t wait to get her down there and show what she can do. But if you think about it, it’s all pretty crazy, what she’s done already.”

Next: Owners Jerry and Ann Moss