Jockey Mike Smith, shown riding Mr. Commons, has won races worth $224 million,… (Benoit Photo / Associated…)
Jockey Mike Smith is in the legacy-building stage of his career. That comes after bug boy, journeyman and star.
The foundation is like a rock. In a 31-year career still going strong, he has won races worth $224 million, has won two Eclipse Awards as the best jockey in the country, went into racing's Hall of Fame in 2003 and shares the record for most victories in the Breeders' Cup with retired Jerry Bailey at 15.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, February 10, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Horse racing: A column in the Feb. 9 Sports section about jockey Mike Smith approaching 5,000 wins said that Smith had won the Breeders' Cup Classic aboard Drosselmeyer at Belmont Park. The race was at Churchill Downs.
He has also won each leg of the Triple Crown once.
"I'd like to do that one more time," he says, "but on the same horse."
Racing would like that too. It hasn't had the interest boost a Triple Crown brings since 1978 and Affirmed.
Among racing's next milestones will be Smith's 5,000th win. He is 12 away, and when it happens, most likely at Santa Anita, he will be the 25th rider to achieve it.
Top 25 has a nice ring to it. At age 46, Smith lends nice perspective.
"I started to think about 5,000 after Del Mar this year," he says. "People started telling me to look at it, go get it, enjoy it. I'm ready to do that now."
The first milestone he recalls with any detail is No. 4,000, June 17, 2001, at Hollywood Park, on a horse fittingly named Lift Off.
"When you are young, you are doing a lot of things," he says. "Something special comes along and you treat it like another day. I remember having days when I won five, even six races, and I didn't think much about it. Now, you get a little older, you start savoring things, because you know they won't always be there."
One memory that lingers is when he met his hero, Laffit Pincay.
"I started when I was 16, and I wasn't much older than that when Laffit came to Keeneland to ride a race," Smith says. At the Lexington, Ky., thoroughbred racing facility "I got to the jocks' room early and was all alone when he walked in. I introduced myself. I watched him drink his tea. He heated it with a metal prong. Then he gave an attendant a time to wake him for his race. I walked over and asked if he would wake up about 30 minutes earlier. He looked at me kind of funny and asked why. I said, 'Because, then you can watch me ride.' "
Pincay did, Smith won, and afterward, Pincay called the shot for the future.
"You're gonna be good, kid," he said.
Smith's first Kentucky Derby was 1984. Pincay won aboard Swale.
"I went to the airport afterward," Smith says, "and I saw a big crowd at a gate. I got up on a chair so I could see what was going on, and it was Laffit, signing autographs."
After years of riding in the East and Florida, Smith moved his base to California. It was 2001 and his first race was a five-horse field. The others were being ridden by Pincay, Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron and Gary Stevens.
"I couldn't believe it," Smith says. "All four guys, Hall of Famers. I had no chance."
Smith joined their club a few years later and eventually won the Kentucky Derby, getting a perfect trip in 2005 on 50-1 Giacomo. Smith had won the Preakness on Prairie Bayou in 1993 and completed his personal triple with Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Belmont.
In November, only the second time he had gotten on Drosselmeyer, he booted him down the endless home stretch at Belmont to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, passing former girlfriend Chantal Sutherland, who had looked like a winner aboard Game On Dude. Trevor Denman's classic call: "Mike Smith, like a ghost, from the outside, dressed in all white ..."
That was his record-tying 15th Breeders' Cup win, and Smith says it's special for more than just the number.
"Both Jerry [Bailey] and I have all 15 wins in original Breeders' Cup races," he says, "not in any of those add-on races they did to make it a two-day event."
Then, of course, there is Zenyatta.
Smith rode all but three of her 19 straight victories, including a Breeders' Cup Classic win at Santa Anita in 2009. The boys were beaten for the first time in that $5-million race and the sport momentarily returned to the days of Secretariat-like buzz.
"There was nothing like her," Smith says. "She had a way of looking over the field, just before she made her big final run. Then she'd pull herself up, like she was saying. 'I can do this,' and run them all down."
The next year's Classic, at Churchill Downs, was to be Zenyatta's grand finale, a victory sending her off to the breeding shed with a 20-0 record. But her stunning final dash fell inches short. A horse named Blame did what no other Zenyatta competitor had been able to do. He held on.
"If Blame had just folded one inch, just labored for one half a step," Smith says, "we would have won."
After the race, an emotional Smith blamed himself. Asked now why he did that when he had done nothing wrong in the race, he says simply, "I'll take it because I'm sure not going to let her take any."
Zenyatta is expected to have her first baby around the first week of March. By then, Smith probably will have won No. 5,000.
Special moments, special legacies.