"Where did he go for all those years?" Somebody asked me that question Saturday after Mike Smith won another classic, the Belmont Stakes on Palace Malice. Where did Smith go? Where did he go for those years between Holy Bull and Zenyatta? Well, there was Azeri and some others, but he did seem to go somewhere. Across the country, to the sidelines...wherever he went, he's back. Somehow, the Hall of Famer has become one of the sport's go-to riders - again. Zenyatta, Royal Delta, Drosselmeyer, Mizdirection, Princess Of Sylmar, Game On Dude, Palace Malice...
I looked back at some of my archives and found an excerpt from Saratoga Days, a personal journal I wrote from Saratoga in 1999. This was one of the pivotal moments in Mike Smith's career. Part of the reason he went missing. And part of why he came back.
Tuesday, July 27, 1999.
Saratoga 1999 is about 24 hours away. It's like Christmas Eve.
The atmosphere won't start for real until tomorrow. The charm is here now. But the buzz will begin when the people line up on Union Avenue and the horses start the walk from their sanctuarial barns to the lights of the first race.
It's a long season up here so people lay low the day before the meet. It's stretching time today. Adjusting the clocks, fine-tuning the violin for tomorrow's grand opening.
We did our seminar (at the racing museum) last night. Still not sure how I fit in with Mike Smith and Todd Pletcher, but it was fun and I hope I provided something useful. They asked me to mention one horse I was looking forward to riding. I had to laugh when I looked out across the auditorium at Keith O'Brien and Fenneka Worley. They knew it was coming.
"Well, I do a lot of hustling. Planned rides are scare, but there is one. His name is Succeed and he's the greatest horse who ever lived."
The audience looked intrigued. When I mentioned Mark Hennig and Flawlessly they were seriously intrigued. Some still think steeplechasing uses some other breed of horse. Like there is the Arabian, the Draft Horse, the Thoroughbred and the Steeplechaser. The same breed, my friends. Jerry Baily rode Succeed before he became a jumper.
Mike Smith is a natural public speaker. Quick-witted and insightful, Mike had everybody laughing and understanding horse racing a little better than when they walked in.
Mike mentioned trying to get back to the same level as last year. I talk about being tested at Saratoga - Mike had the SATs, LSATs and the GREs thrown at him in one punch last year.
On his way to being leading jockey at the meet, he was on a different level. And then Dacron went flying into the inside hedge of the turf course and Mike catapulted through the air. He went from being leading jockey at Saratoga to another patient in an Albany hospital. I'll never forget that moment.
I was watching the race with Mike's wife Patrice, over by the jocks' room. Actually, we were sitting with our backs to the TV, talking, when we heard that shudder thud from the crowd. If you've been around the track, you know the noise the crowd makes when there is a fall. It's unmistakable. Indescribable. Sickening.
We knew when we heard the sound - I just knew it was Mike. We took off running to the track, Patrice screaming, "Who was it?" But we knew. I remember just running, trying to keep up with Patrice and praying for Mike as I ran. I remember seeing him leaning on the outside rail, watching all the other jockeys pulling up, trying to see good signs in the melee that had occurred. He broke two vertebrae.
Mike looked at me and handed me two black rubber bands that keep his silks taut around his wrists (a Roy Hobbs move). Mike said he'd be OK. I still have the rubber bands, and I'll use them on Thursday.
Mike was out forever trying to rehab his back. Now he's in Saratoga again. He said last night that he wanted to get back to the feeling of last year, when something special was happening.
That was part of the impetus to start the book, to tell about guys like Mike who go through moments like this. They happen every day at Saratoga. Last night they showed the Hopeful, when Lucky Roberto and Robbie Davis won the best 2-year-old stakes of the summer. Mike was supposed to ride that horse. I looked at Mike when the video was over and said, "You all right?" He tried to wipe the "what could have been" look off his face and attempted to smile. "About that time, I was trying to get a coat hangar down my cast to scratch my back," he said.
Chip (Miller) and I visited Mike in the hospital and watched him try to adjust to his shackle. He looked pathetic. When they say body cast, they mean body cast. He was wrapped like a mummy from neck to waist in white plaster.
Here was our friend who lifted weights in the sauna with us every Wednesday and Thursday (he doing the lifting) and awed us every afternoon with rides from heaven, lying in a hospital bed trying to use the bathroom with dignity.
Two young girls came in to visit him, and looked at a gimpy man wrapped in plaster.
Mike just smiled: "Don't be scared girls, horses are good."
They smiled anyway.