Riding horses need not only be a young person’s game. They are far from the only jockeys of experience doing big things across the country, but two weeks from now, in the two most glamorous races of Breeders’ Cup weekend, Mike Smith and Victor Espinoza will take center stage in opposition of each other.
Smith, 51, and Espinoza, 44, will be aboard the favorites in both the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Espinoza will go to the post in the Classic aboard the heavily favored California Chrome, while Smith will once again take the saddle on Songbird, for her biggest test yet, in the Distaff. Both superstars, piloted by their trusty partners, will likely prove tough to beat, but each will face new and talented challengers.
Riding the second choice in each big race will be, you guessed it, Smith and Espinoza. In an attempt to end the career long winning streak of Songbird, it will be Espinoza aboard the champion four-year-old, Stellar Wind. A narrow loser of the Distaff last year, the daughter of Curlin looks to be coming up to the November 4 test in career best form, having knocked off Beholder in each of her last two starts.
The next day, in the richest Breeders’ Cup race of all, California Chrome and Espinoza will have a target on their back. It’s no wonder, considering all that the Horse of the Year of 2014 has accomplished in this, his five-year-old season. Win, lose, or draw, the copper-colored chestnut is likely to gallop away with his second title as the nation’s elite racehorse. The Classic is no simple assignment, though. The second choice will come from the powerful Bob Baffert barn, in the form of a powerful three-year-old named Arrogate. Roles reversed on Saturday, it will be Mike Smith trying to upset the heavy favorite this time. If Smith and Arrogate can duplicate a stunning Travers performance, Chrome will be in for the biggest challenge of his perfect 2016 season.
While the horses receive the most attention, Smith and Espinoza deserve plenty of admiration, as well. Both come to this year’s Breeders’ Cup enjoying as much, or more, success than they’ve ever had in their distinguished riding careers.
Smith has been one of the top riders in the nation for a long time. Can you believe it has been 25 years since the young rider from New Mexico travelled to The Curragh and won the Irish 2,000 Guineas aboard Fourstarsallstar? A few years later, the then twenty-something jockey broke the record for stakes wins in a season in 1993 and again in 1994. In both of those years, Smith took home the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Jockey. Surprisingly, it is an award he has not won since, but the big race victories, and the personal honors have never stopped.
Inducted into the Racing’s Hall of Fame back in 2003, Smith has won such prestigious honors as the Mike Venezia Memorial Award, he George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, and Big Sport of Turfdom Award. All three aptly demonstrate the amount of respect Mike Smith has earned on and off the track within the industry. As far as on the track, nothing illustrates the success he has enjoyed as a rider more than his record in the Breeders’ Cup. No jockey has won more Breeders’ Cup races than Smith. Among his 22 victories are last year’s Juvenile Fillies, with Songbird, and three wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (Skip Away, Zenyatta, and Drosselmeyer).
In comparison, Espinoza only has three Breeders’ Cup victories, but his latest was a big one. Last fall he was aboard a Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, as he easily rolled to Breeders’ Cup Classic victory. It is in the three legs of the Triple Crown where the native of Mexico has earned his place among racing’s elite. Espinoza has piloted three different horses to Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories.
Before becoming the only active jockey to win a Triple Crown, Espinoza came close with both War Emblem in 2002, and of course, California Chrome two years ago. Also honored with the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, in 2016, Espinoza will now look to become the first rider in 15 years to win back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classics.
While all eyes in the Breeders’ Cup will be on horses like California Chrome, Songbird, Stellar Wind, and Arrogate, don’t forget about the two highly experienced riders who will ride them. Mike Smith and Victor Espinoza do what they do as well as any jockeys in the world.