Smith, 49, has won more Breeders’ Cup races than any other jockey — and is hoping to add to the total during this year’s Breeders’ Cup, the world championships of horseracing. Anomg his mounts in 2014 will be Shared Belief. A gelding owned in part by radio personality Jim Rome, Shared Belief could face Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome in the meet’s highlight: The Breeder’s Cup Classic.
Smith recently sat down for an interview after a morning work-out at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner. He says he’s at the top of his game and explained how he handles himself when the stakes are high and all eyes are on the finish line.
Q: HOW ARE YOU FEELING FOR THE START OF SANTA ANITA’S AUTUMN MEET?
A: Excited. We got a new surface. Overall, I’m excited and wanting to see it, certainly we’re concerned a bit. You always want everything to be good and nice and so far so good. The horses seem to be getting really well over it, the ones I’m working. It’s exciting as well because it’s leading right into the Breeders’ Cup so we got a little extra electricity and all being that it’s here.
Q: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE ADVANTAGES OF BREEDERS’ CUP AT YOUR HOME TURF AT SANTA ANITA?A: It would be like any sport, a home court advantage is always a plus. Our horses aren’t having to ship to get to where they need to race. They just come out of their own backyards basically. The advantage is also getting over the course day in and day out, a hundred or so times before anyone else gets to. You just get a little feel for the track. All those little things add up to something big.
Q: WHEN DO YOU DECIDE WHAT HORSE YOU’RE GOING TO MOUNT FOR THE BREEDERS’ CUP?
A: It’s pretty close to being decided. Some last minute pick ups will be done this month. One time I picked up a horse when I won the Breeders’ Cup Turf, I picked him up literally five days before. It can get that close. But on a whole you have a pretty good idea right now who’s good enough to make it, who you’ve been riding whose good enough to go.
Q: WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CHOOSING A HORSE?
A: You’ve got to get on the right horses leading into it. What that look is, it’s so many different looks. They come in all colors and all shapes and sizes. Talent comes in a lot of different packages. It’s not necessarily just a look. It’s a horse with a lot of talent, that belongs in those types of races and that can compete at that level. It starts at the beginning of the year. Some of them are older horses, so you’ve known about them. On the whole you’re looking for a young, talented horse that has the bloodline. You know who’s who and what’s what. It’s like scouting for football players or the NBA, scouts all know, your agents know. It’s like almost any other sport in a way.
Q: YOU DO SO WELL IN HIGH STAKES, BIG MONEY RACES. WHY DO YOU THINK YOU CAN PERFORM WELL UNDER PRESSURE?
A: It’s a combination of things. My agent doing his job, getting me on the right horses. Once you’re in those high-pressure situations making very few mistakes and make the race go as smooth and as fluid as you can. It’s very important when you get to that level because they can all beat each other very easily. The fewer mistakes really help. The little bitty mistakes, running into a pace too quick, not running in quick enough, tapping on the brakes in a crucial situation that makes you lose a lot of momentum. It’s about slowing things down and really focusing on making it as smooth as can be. They’re already talented, all you have to do is give them the trip, Let them do their thing. I can’t pick them up and run with them, so they do all the running, we just make all the decisions.
Q: DO YOU HAVE A CERTAIN ROUTINE BEFORE A BIG RACE?
A: I don’t try to change it before a big race. I do my homework the night before, the day of, as far as who I’m racing against, who’s riding who. Fitness-wise, I may jog a little that morning, loosen up, lose a little bit of weight, nothing drastic. Rest well the night before. We have a game plan, but be open to whatever may happen. It’s about just being patient and smooth.
Q: HOW MUCH TIME TO YOU DEVOTE TO STRATEGY?
A: You have so much time. You already know who’s quick. Who does this, who does that. You have a few weeks where you have at least an idea, but again in horse racing so many things happen— the one you thought was going to be in the lead, stumbled, or something and now somebody else is and maybe now you’re closer to the pace because it’s not as quick as it was going to be. Everything changes, you got to be able to adapt and you have to be able to do it and not panic. You can’t second guess yourself at that point, it’s too late. If you did something that’s a bit out of the norm, you have to go with it whole-heartedly. You worry about it afterwards or you become a hero.
Q: WHAT’S GOING THROUGH YOUR HEAD DURING A RACE?
A: So many things. You want your horse to get away well, get into a good rhythm. If a horse is comfortable, a horse is going to breath and do everything right. After you get comfortable, it’s looking at the playing field. It’s looking at what’s going on. Seeing if I’m following the right horse, is this horse going to take me where I need to go. See where you’re going to be able to get out if you need to. Seeing who’s weak, who am I going to be able to ease out or push out. Believe it or not, when you’re really really focused, what happens in a split second, seems longer than you think. If you don’t speed that energy up, the picture becomes clearer and you’re able to adapt and make the decisions you need to make.
It’s about focus. If you keep the horse in a good rhythm, when you ask him to, he’s going to run. It’s about having more gears left at the end.
Q: WHAT HORSE HAS BEEN YOUR FAVORITE HORSE TO RIDE?
A: I’ve been blessed running so many great horses, if I left one out, I’d feel guilty. But the most memorable horse would be, as far as the Breeders’ Cup is concerned, it would be Zenyatta when she won the Classic here. (Zenyatta came from last place to win the 2008 Breeders Cup Classic by 1 1/2 lengths). That was, if not the greatest Breeders’ Cup, one of the top three greatest Breeders’ Cups of all time and not just because I was riding her. I was just blessed to be the guy who got to be on her back when she crossed the wire first. It was just a really special day.
Q: DO YOU KEEP A RELATIONSHIP WITH THE HORSES THAT YOU’VE RIDDEN?
A: With her I have, a lot of them I have. A lot of them are retired in different places. When I fly to Kentucky, I try to stop by to see her and a great horse I used to ride Holy Bull and Lure. I try to stop by and visit when I can, if I get time.
Q: YOU ARE KNOWN FOR YOUR FITNESS, WHAT IS YOUR FITNESS ROUTINE?
A: A lot of cardio, a lot of intervals, some strength training, a lot of endurance training. To compete at this level at my age, you have to have some sort of advantage. I workout to a place where I feel I’m strong, if not stronger, even if it’s just in my head, it’s extra confidence or something you believe in, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. I’m older, but I’m wiser. I’m still as strong, I’m still as fast, really working at. If you’re not fit and eating right and working out, when opportunities come up, you’re not going to be ready for them.
Q: IS IT YEAR-ROUND?
A: It’s a way of life.
Q: WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU’RE NOT AT THE TRACK OR TRAINING?
A: Most of the time I’m training, I’m in the gym, working out then I have lunch with some friends. Then I’m watching racing. I’m a big fan of races even when I’m not riding, I can’t wait to sit in front of the TV and watch it. I watch all sports, but when races come on, I turn the channel and watch it. Other than that. I love great restaurants, going shopping. I’m not a golfer, I’ll take that up when I retire.
Q: ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT RETIREMENT?
A: I know it’s going to come eventually. I haven’t picked a time or place. I feel too darn good. I’m so blessed to be riding the type of horses I’ve been riding, I couldn’t imagine giving them up. I’m living the life right now. It’s what I’ve been working so hard for to get to this point. The years of experience really helps as long as I’m able to do this and if the Good Lord is willing, I stay healthy, I still have at least another four to give years left.
Q: DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’RE AT YOUR PEAK?
A: I feel really good. I’m riding as well as I ever have. I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been in. I may not be as limber as I once was, but my thinking the experience I’ve had really helps at this level. I’ve learned to ride in high-pressure situations and relax and enjoy it. It all comes down to what started it for me in the first place, is the love of the horses.
Q: YOU GREW UP IN NEW MEXICO?
A: I started riding on the ranch. I just really love horses. I’m more comfortable around them than people most of the time.
Q: WHAT HAS MADE YOU A BETTER RIDER?
A: I think I came up in an era that was amazing. The riders I got to ride with were just incredible. I’m not sure we’ll get a decade or decades with that kind of talent. It was like the Michael Jordan era for us. Getting the opportunity to ride with people like that, it’s amazing how fast you learn and how much you learn. I think a lot of them saw my passion, I wanted to learn so much. Back then people wanted to make you better because you didn’t want them to make mistakes in front of them. To this day, I really watch. I study a lot. When riders get on a roll, I watch for what they do that makes them different than me. I never stop watching. I can almost tell you how they hold the reins and what side of their mouth their tongue is on before they can tell you because I watch that closely.