By Jeff Lowe (America’s Best Racing)
Mike Smith is 52 years old and has already been a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame for 15 years, but his prowess and poise as a jockey who thrives on racing’s biggest stages – earning him the nickname “Big Money Mike” from trainer Bob Baffert – is as strong as ever and was on full display Saturday with his ride on Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Justify.
To Smith, the key to his Derby assignment was to keep Justify out of trouble, with a particular focus on the break, and allow the colt to put his enormous talent to work. Baffert figured all the way back this winter that Smith was right for the job.
When Justify first dropped jaws with a 9 ½-length debut win on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita Park, it was with 23-year-old jockey Drayden Van Dyke in the saddle. Smith was at Santa Anita that day, but he did not have a mount in the race, which is not uncommon. At this stage in his career, he rarely rides more than three or four races on a card and keeps his body fresh for the prime opportunities that have preserved his drive for racing after 35 years of competition.
Not long after Justify announced his presence as an immediate player on the Kentucky Derby trail, Baffert decided that it would be Smith instead of Van Dyke on Justify going forward.
“Drayden Van Dyke did a great job with [Justify], but I knew there was going to be a lot of pressure,” Baffert said.
Smith had ridden 23 times in the Kentucky Derby, more than anyone other than Bill Shoemaker’s 26 trips to the post in the great classic, but Smith and Baffert had only teamed up once, and it was in a similar circumstance when Bodemeister finished second as the favorite in 2012. Bodemeister, just like Justify, had gone without any races as a 2-year-old and exploded on the scene in speedy, powerful fashion. After winning the Arkansas Derby, he nearly was the one to the break the streak of Kentucky Derby futility for unraced 2-year-olds dating back to Apollo in 1882, but he weakened ever so slightly in the final yards after setting a fast pace and finished second to I’ll Have Another.
Smith’s lone previous victory in the Derby came with a colossal longshot, Giacomo, at 50.30-to-1 in 2005. Besides Bodemeister, he had finished second in the Derby three other times. On four occasions, his mount had come up short as the favorite, including a painful stretch of three times in four years between 1993 and 1996 with the talented trio of Prairie Bayou, Holy Bull and Unbridled’s Song.
So Smith had a firm grasp of what could go wrong in the Derby, and he could combine that with a priceless amount of poise from his vast experience with top horses in America’s best races, from the Baffert-trained all-time leading North American earner Arrogate to a parade of champion females including Zenyatta, Azeri, Royal Delta and Inside Information.
His strategy with Justify centered on the start, breaking from post 7 for the 10-furlong journey on a track left sloppy and sealed from the wettest Derby day in history.
“I just knew he was capable of this,” Smith said. “My job was just to get him out of there. And I did that part, and I figured the rest is up to him. And I know Bob and his crew already did their part. And he’s just an amazing horse. I have never been on a 3‑year‑old like this.”