Smith shows no signs of slowing with nine Breeders' Cup mounts
By Steve Andersen
ARCADIA, Calif. – The Breeders’ Cup never is far from Mike Smith’s mind.
The Hall of Fame jockey seldom encounters a group of racing fans without someone mentioning his win on the famous mare Zenyatta in the 2009 BC Classic at Santa Anita.
“It’s just kind of out there,” Smith said on a recent morning between workouts at Santa Anita.
Of Smith’s record 20 wins in Breeders’ Cup races, Zenyatta’s victory stands out, even five years later.
“It seems to be extra special because it was here,” he said.
Smith, 49, won his first Breeders’ Cup race in 1992 on the great turf miler Lure. He may add to his total Friday and Saturday. Smith has mounts in nine of the 13 Breeders’ Cup races, a book of rides highlighted by Shared Belief in the BC Classic, the Del Mar star Tom’s Tribute in the BC Mile, and Judy the Beauty in the BC Filly and Mare Sprint.
Smith will need a big weekend to top 2013, when he rode three winners over two days. On six previous occasions, he has had two-win years at the Breeders’ Cup, including three times when the event was held on a single day.
Smith has won the Classic three times, including with Skip Away in 1997 and Drosselmeyer in 2011, and has the favorite this year in Shared Belief, the unbeaten 2-year-old champion of 2013. The gelding could clinch the Horse of the Year title with a win Saturday.
Smith has ridden Shared Belief in his last three starts – the Los Alamitos Derby in July, the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in August, and the Awesome Again Stakes here Sept. 27.
If there were any doubt in Smith’s mind about the brilliance of the seven-time winner Shared Belief, it was answered in the Awesome Again at 1 1/8 miles. Sent off at 1-5, Shared Belief was carried four wide on the first turn by a rival and was five wide on the backstretch before taking the lead in the stretch and beating a stubborn opponent in Fed Biz.
For Smith, it was a shocking performance. He abandoned hope of extending Shared Belief’s winning streak midway through the race but changed his outlook at the end of the backstretch, where the gelding surged forward.
“I thought that was it,” he said. “I bet 95 percent of horses wouldn’t have gotten the job done. Going down the back, I was thinking, ‘It’s over. I’ll give him a good race. We can make something good out of it.’ When he went past the three-eighths, he jumped back in the bridle. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Shared Belief will face his toughest test in the Classic. Smith argued Shared Belief’s potential has yet to be realized.
“The thing about it is that I think there is more there,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Shared Belief, Judy the Beauty, and Tom’s Tribute are typical of the sort of mounts Smith seeks at this stage of his career. Gone is the approach of trying to ride an entire card through the year in search of winners, replaced by an emphasis on quality.
In the late 1990s, Smith often had more than 1,000 mounts a year, a figure that almost has been halved. In 2013, Smith rode 84 winners from 419 mounts that earned $13,781,560. Through Sunday, he is in the midst of a better season, with 97 winners from 468 mounts that have earned $11,316,713.
The New Mexico native credits a physical-fitness program and his enthusiasm for riding for sustaining his career. Smith’s frequent exercise plan includes a six-mile round-trip bike ride to a gym, where he runs three miles on a treadmill and spends an hour with a personal trainer.
It also helps that Southern California has a four-day racing week for most of the year, compared with five days on some circuits.
“I’m looking forward to the races on a Thursday,” he said. “I don’t have to beat myself up. I’m not dreading it. At the end of the day, I’m getting my second wind. I’m ready to go.”
He has no intention of stopping. Smith watched Laffit Pincay Jr. and Bill Shoemaker ride into their 50s and admires the ongoing success of Russell Baze in Northern California. He thinks another five years of riding is achievable.
“I’ve seen guys like Laffit and Shoe do it,” he said. “Look at Russell. He’s a machine.”
When his career does end, expect Smith to stay involved in racing.
“It would be something with horses,” he said. “I don’t think I’d be a trainer. I might help a trainer out, but I don’t want the whole responsibility.”
Working as a commentator holds intrigue, he said. He has watched former riders Jerry Bailey, Richard Migliore, and Gary Stevens excel in that capacity.
“That would be an opportunity to see if I like that,” he said.
Smith has had the practice. For years, he has talked about top racehorses frequently. The conversation will continue.