I can see it now.
Mike Smith's feet dangling, long and low, like a kid riding his pony to the river. Body swaying, gently, he could be fishing from a surfboard. Looking at the horizon, squinting, distant, like he's trying to will away his and his horse's nerves. Hands on the reins but not clutching them, coddling them like they might bite.
The 50-year-old Hall of Famer has mastered his pre-race warm up, a mix of preparation and anticipation. The tricks of the trade learned through the years from bush tracks in New Mexico to the grand stage of the Breeders' Cup. At the Curragh on Fourstars Allstar before he upset the 2000 Guineas. On Zenyatta as she pranced and prowled, high-stepping, from Oaklawn Park to Santa Anita. On Coronado's Quest, when one wrong move could have ended it all. On Lure, knowing the calmest horse will go the fastest. On Unbridled's Song, a big brute on a hair trigger. On Royal Delta and Songbird and Azeri and Holy Bull...and Effinex.
Smith will climb aboard the dark bay 5-year-old for the sixth time this afternoon and stroll out of the paddock, squinting and swaying, talking the horse off the ledge.
"Just little things, just getting along with him over to the gate, I think every little part matters with him, from the time I get on him in the paddock, just try to keep his mind set, because he can get off track and get upset, once he does that, he doesn't forget that quick," Smith said, as he drove to Del Mar Friday afternoon. "I can see it flaring up a little bit, I'm like, 'Oh, it's OK, it's OK, it's OK.' Just try to talk him out of it before he gets out of hand."
Some horses can get nervous and regain their composure, others, once the lid comes off, it never fits again. The key to being a jockey, well, just being a rider, is to never find out which one you're aboard.
Gary Stevens is the only other jockey to ride Effinex since Smith got the ride in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, where they finished second to American Pharoah. Stevens deputized for Smith in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in June. It was over before it started.
"Gary said a fire truck or something came by, when he was warming up, just blaring, it set him off, he was flustered from that point on, he acted funny going in the gate, stumbled leaving there, no fault of anybody, it just got him upset," Smith said. "I've never been in a situation where he's lost it, but the day he had hives, he was agitated, he still ran well, finished third (in the Santa Anita Handicap), but I couldn't get him happy for nothing in the post parade. I was lucky enough to get away well and he was in a good spot, so he ran OK, but he wasn't wanting to. I've seen that side to him, a little. "
That's why Smith doesn't dare put his feet in the stirrups until approaching the gate, why he's never left the lead pony, why he sits like butter on toast.
"As soon as I get on him, I never put them up, I don't want him to get all excited, I'll just give him a little hug with my legs and just ride him around there," Smith said. "If he wants to look to the left, he can look to the left, or to the right, whatever he wants to do. If you set him off, it's in their head and it's over, it's done."
Smith won't change that mindset in the race either, concentrating on rhythm rather than race riding.
"I can't try to do a little of this, grab a hold of him, stick this guy in there, I just have to worry about my horse, just getting him comfortable and happy, wherever that's at," Smith said. "Some are a little more tactical, but with him, I've got to get him going in the right direction, once I do that, then I know he's going to run well. I love the mile and an eighth, he's a strong horse and he's a hard horse, you can be brave with him early, he can grind it down, he can make a big move, he can do a lot of different things, as long as he's happy before."
There's never been one sentence to explain how to ride a horse, but, Smith got as close as anyone I've ever known when he tried to explain the art of riding Effinex.
"Just try to feel what he's feeling," Smith said. "And go with it."
• In a new (probably temporary) addition to the Cup of Coffee, we are announcing friends' gigs and good causes. Vicky Moon is signing her book, Stylish Life Equestrian, at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, 10:00 Saturday morning, so get there. Aaron Gryder called and suggested you go to Gaffney's from 7-9, Monday night. Great singer. Great charity.