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BREEDERS' CUP

Jockey Mike Smith says Breeders' Cup 'brings me to life'

The Hall of Fame member has won 12 races in the event during his career.

November 07, 2009|Pete Thomas

It's a week before the Breeders' Cup World Championships and Mike Smith sits in a quiet corner of the Santa Anita jockeys' room, searching for words to describe Zenyatta's special qualities.

The 5-year-old mare will try to extend her undefeated streak to a record 14 major races today when she competes for the first time against males in the marquee Breeders' Cup Classic.

Smith, 44, a Hall of Fame jockey whose remarkable career spans nearly 30 years, says that Zenyatta is probably the best horse he has ridden and that if she prevails "she'll have to go down as one of the all-time greats."

In a mood swing, though, Smith adds, pensively: "You know, this could be her last race."

It's a sad prospect for racing fans. But Smith's statement raises a question about the jockey too:

How much longer will the 2005 Kentucky Derby winner, himself an all-time great, continue in a sport fraught with danger and requiring extraordinary physical conditioning and mental prowess?

Jerry Moss, who owns Zenyatta with his wife, Ann, refers to Smith as "a young man in a middle-aged man's body."

Jerry Bailey, a retired Hall of Fame jockey and an analyst for ESPN, says Smith is "probably the fittest rider I've ever seen in my life."

Bailey recalls the fairly recent sight of Smith jogging around the Hollywood Park racetrack on a sweltering summer afternoon, wearing a rubber suit, conditioning himself for the night racing card.

Smith has no immediate plans to retire. The Breeders' Cup, he adds, "brings me to life."

He has won 12 Breeders' Cup races and, with at least four mounts today, he could tie or break Bailey's record of 15 victories.

"He just has a knack for understanding horses," says John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta and has enjoyed a longtime association with Smith.

But Michael Earl Smith, who was raised on a ranch in New Mexico and competed in match races when he was 11, acknowledges time gone by and confesses that he considered quitting after a violent spill in 1998 left him in a body cast for a month and in braces for five months.

He had been aboard Dacron at Saratoga, a day after winning the Travers Stakes, when the horse buckled. Smith flew upward, somersaulted and landed jarringly on his backside. The horse rolled over the rider, who suffered two broken vertebrae but no neurological damage.

It was a monumental setback for an athlete who in 1991 became the first U.S.-based jockey to win a European Classic; who had been the leading rider in New York in 1991, '92 and '93; who had won Eclipse Awards in 1993 (when he posted a then-record 62 stakes victories) and 1994 (68 stakes wins); and who had begun compiling riding titles with seeming ease at East Coast tracks.

"I made it back, but the most painful part of the whole thing for me was struggling when I came back," Smith recalls. "People weren't riding me and there was a lot of neglect and I started thinking, 'Wow, is it even worth coming back?' "

Says Bailey: "You not only have to get over the mental and physical aspect of recovery for yourself, but you have to convince everybody else that's putting you on horses. They'll think, 'He'll never be the same' even though you might be the same."

Smith says there remains a fear factor in a sport where 1,000-pound animals are charging in tight quarters at 40 mph. But he adds, "The passion and the love of the sport and the thrill of victory just way surpasses the fear."

He moved to Southern California in 2001 and his career blossomed anew. In 2002 he was the regular rider aboard Azeri, which won the Breeders' Cup Distaff and was later named horse of the year. He rode Vindication to triumph in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

His crowning moment was in 2005 when he rallied 50-1 shot Giacomo -- also a Moss-owned and Shirreffs-trained horse -- from 18 lengths behind to win the Kentucky Derby.

Some said it was vindication for Smith, who was 12th aboard the heavily favored Holy Bull -- Giacomo's sire -- in the 1994 Derby.

Smith, however, notes that he had been winless 11 times but second three times previously in the Derby, and that the surreal triumph simply represented personal justification for his being voted into the Hall of Fame two years earlier.

"It was probably the most humbling experience I've ever felt," he recalls.

Now Smith awaits the Breeders' Cup Classic and a chance to add to his and Zenyatta's legend. Smith, who has been aboard Zenyatta for her last 10 triumphs, says he has run out of words to describe the Zenyatta experience, but words nonetheless flow.

"She seems to just lope out there at the back of the pack and when it's time to go, you just ask her and she just explodes, man," the jockey says. "And what's scary is that it doesn't take her a quarter-mile to get by horses -- she can do it in a matter of several strides and BAM, she's by them that fast.

"I find myself in awe of her, just looking at her, almost being a spectator myself, but on top of her."

It is, Smith assures, the best seat in the house.

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pete.thomas@latimes.com

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latimes.com/sports

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Check out the Fabulous Forum blog for live Breeders' Cup updates from Santa Anita throughout the day.

First post: 10:05 a.m.

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