The first was Bat Prospector.
Mike Smith had arrived in New York earlier that year. I hadn’t arrived anywhere. It was 1990. In the jocks’ room to ride a no-hoper in the opening jump race, I worked up the nerve to introduce myself to Smith, who was due to ride Mike Freeman’s Bat Prospector later that afternoon. I had galloped the filly a couple of times, figured it was an icebreaker, a conversation starter. We shook hands, talked about the filly and became fast friends. I was in awe of the New Mexico kid who had come to New York with finesse and flare.
I had watched Cordero, Velasquez, Santos and all their strength. I had watched Samyn, Krone and Antley and all their touch. I had watched Davis, Migliore and Bailey and their ability to simply win.
But I had never seen one like Smith.
He could muscle them, he could massage them, he could anchor them, he could cajole them, he could flick a stick left-handed faster than a Sugar Ray Leonard jab (we called it the Chief Honcho wave), he could loose rein them like a cowboy and short rein them like a safe cracker. And, to top it all off, Smith was riding for my people – winning races for Freeman, Mickey Preger, Leo O’Brien – the little guy for the little guy.
I was too young to know I was about to watch a Hall of Fame career, a career of mercurial highs and devastating lows, a career that would include the greatest horses of my era, the greatest races of all eras.
We’ve talked about all of them, whether it was as friends in the hot box at Saratoga or on vacation in Santa Fe or as a journalist for The Blood-Horse after Skip Away won the 1997 Breeders’ Cup or for The Saratoga Special after Songbird remained undefeated at Saratoga this summer.
It’s hard to list the horses, well, it’s not hard to start, just hard to finish – Sky Beauty, Inside Information, Holy Bull, Devil His Due, Coronado’s Quest, Fourstardave, Fourstars Allstar, Unbridled’s Song, Lure, Skip Away, Vindication, Azeri, Zenyatta, Drosselmeyer, Palace Malice, Giacomo, Royal Delta, Shared Belief, Songbird, Arrogate…
And, yes, it’s now Arrogate, winner of the Travers in August, the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November and due to clash with California Chrome in Saturday’s Pegasus World Cup Invitational, a $12 million pressure cooker.
Thursday, Smith was settling in at Gulfstream Park. It could have been the jocks’ room at Saratoga in 1990.
“Just getting in and getting settled,” Smith said. “Got my tack dropped off, picked up all my credentials and tickets, ready to roll, now I’m just going to relax.”
In between killer sessions at the gym and a few select rides at his home base at Santa Anita and on the road, the 51-year-old relaxes like an old man in a hammock. Smith kicks his feet out of the stirrups in the paddock, settling himself and his horses, then allows a race to come to him rather than the other way around.
Saturday, Arrogate breaks from the rail, the same spot as in the Travers, inside 11 horses with $12 million on the line. Smith isn’t worried.
“Out of the 1 hole, I’m going to be very aggressive and see where that put us, if it puts us in front, great, fine; if it doesn’t, I’ll just let the race unfold and go from there. I’ll let it set up as it comes, hopefully find him a place to run when it comes, that’s all you can really ask for,” Smith said. “I feel like I’m on a very, very talented horse, Chrome’s in there with unbelievable talent and several others, you just hope everyone gets their fair shot and go from there, see who can beat who.”
Smith climbed aboard the Bob Baffert-trained Arrogate for the first time in the Travers and put 26 years (since Bat Prospector) of experience to good use, cuing him early, then draping over him like a wet towel over a handrail and never looking back. In his next start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Arrogate broke from the outside, Smith sat still, asking for relaxation without asking, before pouncing on California Chrome in a game of lion and mouse.
“He’s very versatile, he’s not a one-dimensional kind of horse,” Smith said “When he’s inside he’s more aggressive, when he’s out on the outside like he was in the Classic I was able to just put my hands down and settle right off of them, it just depends on what you want to do.”
Just like when we talked about Bat Prospector, Royal Delta, Azeri, Zenyatta and all the others, Smith put human traits on an equine star.
“He’s a laid-back kind of dude, just having a good time, he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about right now,” Smith said Thursday afternoon. “He schooled today he just walked around, ‘Oh, this is a cool place. All right. All right.’ Either he doesn’t know or he doesn’t care, he’s just a happy-go-lucky dude. Yet, he knows when it’s time to run. When I get on him and warm him up, he knows he’s in a race.”
In his five wins since a debut third back in April, Arrogate has turned four into processions and one into a half-length win over the eventual Horse of the Year. In the Travers, Arrogate widened his lead with every call. In the Classic, he diminished California Chrome’s lead with every call.
“I’m not looking to leave there with my hands down, the 1 hole, you know, I’ve got to get out of there, I’ll be aggressive leaving there,” Smith said. “If I’m not in front, then hopefully I’m in behind a horse or two, then go from there. If I’m dealt where I’ve got to sit down in there for a little while, then I have to sit down in there for a little while, there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve got to just not panic, keep my cool, go with the flow, man, just let the race set up and we’ll find a way either through, out, in between or around, whatever presents itself.”
Presentations come a lot easier when a horse has speed and stamina to go along with talent and tenacity. For Smith, Arrogate has it all.
“I know I’ve got a horse who has a great demeanor, he has that natural ability, he’s got air that never seems to stop for some odd reason, he’s got a turn of foot that’s unbelievable, it’s second to none,” Smith said, pausing to think about the list. “This horse seems to have an extra it factor, what that is I can’t honestly tell you, but it’s stamina, the way he gets up underneath himself for such a big horse, he doesn’t get long on you, he gets those back legs way underneath you, there’s a lot of push, that stride is crazy. He’ll be long, lanky, just going along at that really good high cruising speed and you ask him, boy, brrrrrrrrmmmmm, it’s like you started running down hill all of a sudden.”
And as always, Smith and I began with a conversation about horses and turned it into a talk about life.
“I think we learn to appreciate everything more in life as we get older, I’m just so blessed to still get these kind of opportunities, to ride these kind of horses, it’s crazy, man, crazy,” Smith said. “I’m blessed to be riding these horses, the nicest horses, believe it or not, the best I’ve ever been on and I’ve ever been on some great horses, but man, they just seem to keep coming around. I thank the Lord everyday, he gave me the ability and the size to be what I am, I wouldn’t trade it with anybody . . . now, it would have been cool to be Michael Jordan for a game or two.”
Yes, there have been injuries and cold spells, troughs and travails but for me, Smith has been Jordan since 1990, when he was a kid trying to make it big in New York. He’s ridden 32,725 races, won 5,372 (22nd all-time) with total purse earnings of $286,087,224 (fourth). He’s ridden Hall of Famers, won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes (twice), 25 Breeders’ Cup races. He’s also broken bones and seen his career peak, bottom out and peak again.
“You start out with the love for the horse, then it turns into competition and then it goes back to the love for the horse again, I truly admire these horses. I’ve learned to appreciate them more, before it was numbers, how many can I win, go, go, go, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t on 10 a day,” Smith said. “When I was 6, 7, 8, 9 years old, I just wanted to touch one, it’s kind of back to that place again. I listen to them a whole lot more than I used to, I used to make them listen to me. It’s gradual, as you get older, you just start getting it, anything in life, not just in sports, that’s in everything, that’s just life.”