By Joe Drape (New York Times)
Sometimes a well-liked guy wins in the cutthroat sport of horse racing and even his bitterest rivals are happy. Mike Smith was that guy on Saturday after booting Justify home in the 150th running of the Belmont Stakes and helping him become the 13th horse to sweep the Triple Crown.
Smith is 52. His craggy face is a map of some brutal years, partly from the nasty spills that led to enough broken bones to keep an orthopedic med school class busy, partly because he lost his passion and confidence for stretches of his Hall of Fame career.
What Smith never lost, however, was a sense of humor and the love for the animals that provided him a good living. The wrinkles around his eyes and his impish smile have made him something of a racetrack Yoda.
On Saturday, the closest his fellow riders and their horses ever got to Smith and Justify was when he trotted his colt around the clubhouse turn to the winner’s circle. Jose Ortiz, 24, the jockey aboard the runner-up, Gronkowski, and Jose’s brother, Irad, 25, who chased Justify home in third, aboard Hofburg, beamed lighthouse smiles as they offered Smith congratulations.
Vino Rosso’s jockey, John Velazquez, 46 and also a Hall of Famer, wrapped him in a heartfelt embrace. “I’ve known him for so long,” Velazquez said, “and for him to do this at this age is incredible. I am really happy for him.”
Smith’s face, as usual, was bisected by an incandescent smile. He understands he has ridden perhaps more great horses than any of his peers have: the great Holy Bull, the champion mare Zenyatta, the world’s richest racehorse, Arrogate, and now Justify.
“He’s the greatest of all time,” Smith said of Justify when asked who his favorite was. “I just won the Triple Crown.”
Smith, however, knows the knife’s edge that he and his colleagues walk daily. He was in a body cast for months with a broken back after a harrowing spill at Saratoga in 1998. He had made his reputation in New York and won every big race there was, but was perceived as tentative when he returned to the track.
He chose to try to reinvent himself in California. He had his reasons. He was getting a divorce. He missed his home in New Mexico and wanted to be able to see his mother, Vidoll Daniel, more often. She was alongside him in the winner’s circle on Saturday.
He asked her if this made up for him dropping out of high school. She fought back tears and nodded yes.
Smith knows about tears. He has shed them for horses whose demises have haunted him, especially Prairie Bayou, whom he rode to victory in the 1993 Preakness Stakes, which helped make him a big-time rider.
Three weeks later, in the Belmont Stakes, the gelding sustained multiple fractures in his left leg and was put down. Smith was inconsolable afterward, tears falling as he tried to explain what happened, as he replayed the moment into the night.
In 2010, Smith wept again when he was unable to close out an unbeaten 20-race career for the peerless mare Zenyatta. She lost narrowly in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, after which Smith publicly took the blame, which is another plus in his column for fellow jockeys and horse trainers.
“Mike fell on the sword with Zenyatta,” Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said.
Smith communicates with more than just horses. He has earned the trust of the sport’s top trainers, as well as the nickname Big Money Mike, by giving honest assessments of a horse’s performance as soon as he dismounts.
He remains upbeat and focuses on the positive. It’s not what the horse can do for him, but what Smith can do for the horse. Once Baffert was upset with a ride Smith had given one of his horses but snapped at his wife, Jill, when she suggested telling the rider directly.
“It’s like yelling at Bambi,” Baffert told her.
Smith’s midlife riding renaissance has been powered by a devotion to the weight room, cross-training and running. Neck down, Smith looks like a 30-year-old. Neck up, he is comfortable with how the hard knocks have shaped him.
As a younger man, Smith confessed, he wasn’t ready for a big horse like Justify to be entrusted to him.
“It’s all the things you learn from time,” he said. “I wasn’t ready back then.”
Smith was ready on Saturday. Before Baffert gave his rider a leg up on Justify and sent him to the track, the trainer told him, “He’s got a full tank of gas — don’t use it all.”
Smith didn’t. After the race, he gave Baffert his heartfelt thanks for sticking with an aging rider with a nice streak for all these years.
“Bob has helped me achieve so many goals,” Smith said, fighting back tears. “Today he made my dreams come true. He put an old man out there and stayed out of the way.”