Mike Smith, a Hall of Fame jockey who remains at the top of his sport at age 49, likes to listen to Michael Jackson. Drayden Van Dyke, 19, the leading candidate to win the Eclipse Award as the top apprentice rider in North America, prefers a hip-hop beat.
Smith is meticulous about his appearance and the way he maintains his three-bedroom villa in Sierra Madre, which is tucked in the foothills of the San Gabriel Valley. At least he was before he offered Van Dyke a spare bedroom.
“My laundry can build up quite a bit,” Van Dyke acknowledged.
Smith, the career leader with 20 victories and $25,614,260 in earnings in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, will again be a focal point when he rides the undefeated Shared Belief in the $5 million Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita Park. Van Dyke does not have a mount. Instead, he will look on and learn from his boyhood idol turned mentor.
As different as they are in their style and their standing in a fiercely competitive sport, these two sons of jockeys formed a bond that became nearly unbreakable when Van Dyke’s father, Seth, committed suicide in August in Hallandale Beach, Fla. He was 43.
Although there were no words that could console Van Dyke when he heard the news, Smith made sure he was not alone.
“It was just being there,” Smith said, recalling how they cried and how he assured Van Dyke that he would be there for him. “What can you say in a situation like that?”
Gary Stevens, another Hall of Fame jockey, hurried to join them as they sat in near silence.
Van Dyke’s voice tightened with emotion as he discussed his father this week while sitting in the grandstand at Santa Anita. His parents never married. He lived with his mother, Jennifer Murray, while growing up in Hot Springs, Ark. He spent summers with his father in Louisville, Ky., and they became closer through the years. He appreciated his father’s passion for hunting and fishing, and they shared a love of horses.
“We got along so good,” Van Dyke said. “We were a lot alike.”
So Van Dyke decided he, too, wanted to become a jockey.
“He’s the biggest part of me that brought me into it,” Van Dyke said. “Without him, I would have no connection to horses.”
His father, who was said to have battled depression for many years, worked as an exercise rider and served as a jockey’s valet once his competitive days were over. Van Dyke thought his early success might lift his spirits.
“His passion for horses was kind of fizzling a little bit,” Van Dyke said. “I don’t know why. But when I started riding, it started picking up.”
Then the news came Aug. 11. Van Dyke wondered if there was something more he could have done. Should he have reached out more? He thought all kinds of things. Even though he had seven mounts lined up at Del Mar the next day and funeral arrangements were not yet completed, he did not want to ride. His mother and Smith finally convinced him to go to the track.
“I said, ‘I want you to ride like you never rode before,'” Smith said. “And he did. He rode brilliant that day.”
For all the success Smith has enjoyed in establishing himself as a go-to rider for major races — he won the Bill Shoemaker Award as the outstanding jockey for the last two editions of the Breeders’ Cup — he appears to take even greater satisfaction from Van Dyke’s rapid progress.
As of Tuesday, Van Dyke had won 149 races for earnings of $4,825,661. He demonstrated his toughness when he endured spills on consecutive days at Del Mar this summer and bounced up each time. He has come far since winning his first race, aboard Money Clip, last November at Hollywood Park.
“He’s just a wonderful kid,” Smith said. “He’s like a sponge. You can see him soak it all in. I have no children in my life. It’s neat to watch him grow and watch him get better.”
Smith is not alone in recognizing Van Dyke’s potential. Julio Canani, a trainer based on the West Coast, said Van Dyke reminded him so much of Shoemaker, who won 8,833 races in his career, that he calls him Little Bill.
Stevens, who rode Mucho Macho Man to victory in last year’s Classic, makes similar comparisons.
“He knows he’s been given a gift,” Stevens said. “To me, he’s a natural. He’s got something you don’t see in very many young athletes. The better he does, the harder he works.”
As ferociously as jockeys and their agents battle for top horses, and as fiercely as they compete when life and limb are at risk once the starting gates open, the riding community has no trouble coming together in times of trouble.
Stevens said Smith’s role in Van Dyke’s life was no exception.
“He’s not only teaching him about race riding, but he’s teaching him about life,” Stevens said. “Every kid needs guidance. A young kid making money can screw things up real quick.”
Van Dyke said he never loses sight of how fortunate he is to have Smith around to suggest what he might have done differently in losses and to offer encouragement after wins.
“I want to be the best,” he said, “and I’m learning from the best.”