Early on Pennsylvania Derby Day at Parx Racing Sept. 23, Mike Smith made time for every photo, every autograph request, every “You remember when?” from racing people, every “Hey Mike” from the crowd.
The Hall of Fame jockey isn’t from Pennsylvania, but he might as well be a local thanks to visits to ride decades of stars in the Bensalem track’s major races and the long reach of his father, a Keystone/Philadelphia Park/Parx icon of sorts. George Smith died in December, but he was very much on his son’s mind a few hours before West Coast would dominate the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby.
“Big time I think about him,” Smith said. “I got to have dinner last night with Verna, his wife, got to spend some time together and reminisce and laugh. Some of his friends came to dinner with us last night and they were telling some stories that had me wetting my pants. I about laughed to death. Funny and sad at the same time. Happy and sad. It was good. I’m glad I did it.”
People remember Smith at Parx. Because of his father sure, but also because of rides aboard the likes of West Coast, Songbird, Close Hatches and Jostle in the track’s signature races.
“It wasn’t where I started or anything but something about it makes it feel like home,” Smith said. “My dad lived here for so long. Last time I really got to see him was here last year. Some of these people I’ve known for 20-some years. I’m very blessed. I’m still coming back, riding these kinds of races, these types of horses.”
Smith might have the best job in racing, picking and choosing from top mounts all over the country and winning races such as the Pegasus World Cup, Dubai World Cup, Travers, Coaching Club American Oaks, Met Mile, Kentucky Oaks, Pennsylvania Derby, Delaware Handicap, Ogden Phipps, Acorn, Forego, Shoemaker Mile and more. And that’s just this year. His horses have earned $23.6 million in 2017, and more than $303 million in a career that started with 36 wins back in 1982.
He’s pushed the total to 5,424 after winning Thursday’s feature at Del Mar, the Lure Stakes, aboard He Will.
Based in California, Smith has nine rides in the Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday at Del Mar.
Friday’s lineup starts with Moon Dash, a 15-1 shot for Mike Stidham, in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Next comes Mor Spirit, 3-1 in the Dirt Mile for Bob Baffert. The 4-year-old has won three in a row. Smith takes a break in the Juvenile Turf (come on, trainers) and finishes up Friday’s card with Abel Tasman in the Distaff. The 3-year-old filly lost the Grade 1 Cotillion at Parx after breaking badly, blitzing to the front on the backstretch and weakening late to finish second. She’s 4-1 and if Smith and Baffert have solved some of those habits will be heard from.
“She’s going to have to go against older horses next time but she certainly belongs,” Smith said before the Parx race. “She’s got the size and the stamina and the strength to run against older horses.”
Smith’s Saturday Breeders’ Cup roster starts with Caledonia Road (15-1 for Ralph Nicks) in the Juvenile Fillies. The jockey skips the Turf Sprint, rides Jerry Hollendorfer’s 9-5 shot Unique Bella in the Filly and Mare Sprint, gets on 30-1 Peruvian import Birdie Gold for Gary Mandella in the Filly and Mare Turf, teams up with champion Drefong (5-2 for Baffert) in the Sprint and gets tabbed by English trainer Hugo Palmer for Home Of The Brave (20-1) in the Mile. The leading Breeders’ Cup jockey of all-time with 25 wins, Smith will watch the Juvenile and the Turf (really?), but puts the wraps on a long day with last year’s winner Arrogate in the $6 million Classic. A win clinches Horse of the Year and caps a career that already includes $17 million in earnings.
Arrogate lost two races at Del Mar this summer, his only defeats in six races with Smith, but looked better in the Pacific Classic in August when beaten a half-length by Collected. Juddmonte Farm’s 4-year-old son of Unbridled’s Song turned in three bullet 5-furlong works at Santa Anita since Sept. 26, plus moves of 6 and 7 furlongs. The gray colt breaks from the rail in a field of 11 at 2-1.
“When he runs his A race, I don’t think we’ve seen many like him,” Smith said in September of Arrogate. “He’s really good. He gives you some feeling. He’s fresh again, got his legs back underneath him, he’ll be ready.”
Arrogate and Smith caught Horse of the Year California Chrome to win last year’s Classic at Santa Anita, then dominated the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park in late January. Three months later, Arrogate won the $10 million Dubai World Cup to truly earn his title as the world’s best racehorse. Rested until July, he returned in Del Mar’s San Diego Handicap and flopped to a dull fourth, 15 lengths behind Accelerate.
“He trained up to the first race pretty strong and pretty aggressive and he was just dull in the race,” Smith said. “They’re still horses. He did a lot real quick and it just wasn’t his best race.”
In the Pacific Classic, Arrogate was better but still lost – by a half-length to the Baffert-trained Collected.
“That’s never going to be his favorite track there, but he can run over it,” Smith said of Del Mar. “All he’s got to do is try. He will. When they’re a little bit dull and they aren’t liking something it makes it a whole lot easier for them to throw the towel in. If he’s jumping through the bridle, he won’t throw the towel in. Half of it’s mental, more than half. And his legs were probably not there. They’re there now.”
When you’ve ridden for as long as Smith has, you look back. He went to the Hall of Fame before he rode Arrogate, before Zenyatta, before Songbird, before Royal Delta, before Shared Belief, before so much. Of course, he rode Lure, Inside Information, Holy Bull, Azeri, Sky Beauty, Prairie Bayou and so on to earn that 2003 Hall of Fame induction. Maybe all that provides some perspective. He’s 52 after all, when his many of his chief competitors are in their 20s.
“Let’s face it, we’re at the end of my career, we’re on the downside of it anyway,” he said. “I’m just going to enjoy every part of it, see the people, take some pictures, sign some programs, as much as I can. We’re making the most of it.”
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the New York regular went to California to try to rebuild his career. Smith won 240 or more races a year for eight consecutive years (1990-97), and won Eclipse Awards in 1993 and 1994. Starting in 1998, mounts, wins, earnings, everything dropped off. He was blasted by injuries, wore a body cast for months, lost opportunities, lost his spot with the best in the game.
Then it all turned around. He went to California. He got healthy, and got fitter (if that’s even possible for a workout demon). The opportunities returned, so did confidence. The good horses followed, and have not stopped. He doesn’t ride nearly as often, but he’s more successful than ever.
“I’m old, man. I’m blessed that I’ve still got physical fitness and stayed in good shape, good enough shape anyway,” he said with a pat of a non-existent belly. “I can still do it another three or four years, maybe more. These kinds of horses keep coming around, I’ll keep doing it. I’ll do it until they stop coming around or until I can’t do it as well anymore.
Is he a better jockey now, at 300-400 mounts a year when he used to regularly hit 1,400?
“I use my head probably more now, slow things down,” Smith said. “Things are clearer for me, I’m very confident in the decisions I make, whether that be early on to be aggressive or not to be. Things you might have questioned – ‘Is that the thing to do? Are you sure? Should I go here? Should I not?’ Now I pick a spot and if my horse is good enough, I’m capable of doing it. And if he isn’t, I’ll try something different.
“Just simple things. It’s doing the simple things better than you used to do them before. As a young guy, that’s extremely hard. You make things more complicated and difficult when you’re young and don’t have the experience.”