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Pals Mike Smith and Gary Stevens saddle up for Breeders' Cup

Veteran jockeys, close friends for many years, are looking forward to competing against each other at Santa Anita next weekend. Both believe they are riding potential winners.

October 26, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Jockey Mike Smith, left, rides Palace Malice as he races against Oxbow and jockey Gary Stevens during the Belmont Stakes in June. The veteran duo hasn't let their "Geritol Jocks" nickname prevent them from winning on a regular basis.
Jockey Mike Smith, left, rides Palace Malice as he races against Oxbow and… (Peter Morgan / Associated…)

Most people think next weekend's horse racing extravaganza at Santa Anita is the Breeders' Cup. It's actually the Mike and Gary Show.

They are Mike Smith and Gary Stevens, the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady of their sport. They are long in experience and tooth, star jockeys who have been around ... and around ... and around.

Each has won more than 5,000 races and millions of dollars in racing purses. Each has won each Triple Crown race at least once, Stevens three times each. Stevens has won eight Breeders' Cup races, Smith has the record with 17.

Each has been inducted into racing's Hall of Fame, Stevens in 1997 and Smith in 2003.

But the most startling numbers? Stevens is 50, Smith 48. Santa Anita's daily reporter, Ed Golden, calls them the Geritol Jocks.

While youth must be served in all sports, and always eventually is, the Friday-Saturday Breeders' Cup competition has the look and feel this time of a Veterans Weekend. The Geritol Jocks have cornered the market on much of the top thoroughbred talent in the field.

Barring last-minute injuries to horses or riders, Smith will ride in 12 of the 14 Breeders' Cup races, Stevens in nine.

For Smith, it would have been 13 of 14, but his entry in the $1.5-million sprint, Points Offthebench, broke down Saturday morning during a workout and had to be euthanized. Smith was aboard but was not injured.

Of his Breeders' Cup rides, Smith says, "I'm not on one horse that I don't think belongs."

Stevens echoes, "Every horse I'm on has a real chance."

In this Breeders' Cup, the wagering public might not need all those complicated forms and sheets. There will be only one race without a Smith or Stevens aboard. With $25 million in purses at stake, bettors who go for experience in the irons might experience heavy wallets.

The biggest Smith-Stevens showdowns will come in each day's featured races.

In Friday's Distaff, worth $2 million, Smith will ride the favored Royal Delta, and among his main competition will be Beholder, with Stevens aboard. In Saturday's Classic, worth $5 million, Game On Dude and Smith are expected to get the biggest bump from bettors, with Mucho Macho Man and Stevens close behind.

Smith says, "I am blessed." Stevens echoes, "I've been very fortunate."

They've also been like brothers for nearly 30 years.

Smith says, "I'm happy for both of us, and if I don't win, I hope he does." Stevens, in a separate interview, says, "He's family, probably my best friend in life."

They met at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas in 1985.

"It was my first $500,000 race," Stevens says.

It was also Smith's wedding day and he invited his new friend to the wedding.

"I got there late, with Eddie D [Delahoussaye] and they were closing the bar," Stevens says. "We got it opened up again."

They each wake every morning between 115-118 pounds and go to work to get it even lower. Stevens has a protein shake and a scoop of peanut butter and heads for his workout. After his breakfast, Smith heads to the Matador Performance Center in Pasadena, is pushed by personal trainer Tony Vong, and often runs back to Santa Anita, about three miles away.

Sometimes, on non-race days, they'll have lunch together.

"He'll work me over sometimes, talk a little trash," Stevens says. "I hear how good Royal Delta is working, stuff like that."

Stevens was gone for awhile. He retired from racing in 2005, did network broadcasting, even starred in the movie "Seabiscuit" and the HBO series "Luck." He was happy, but unfulfilled.

"He didn't go out on his terms," Smith says. "We'd have dinner and I'd tell him to come back, that he could do it. There were a lot of doubters, but I knew he could do it."

And so Stevens did, putting himself through a boot camp in Seattle to get his weight down and getting back in the saddle near the start of Santa Anita's winter meeting in January.

Six months later, he took D. Wayne Lukas' Oxbow wire to wire in the Preakness and was all the way back.

Smith never left, but his career was chugging more than sprinting, until he got the ride on a giant mare named Zenyatta. She went 19-0, always coming from way behind to win before losing her last race by a couple of whiskers in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Among her legacies is a statue near the paddock at Santa Anita and a very grateful former rider.

"She opened so many doors for me," Smith says. "I got the ride on Royal Delta, and Bob Baffert started to put me on some of his horses. There is still no way to describe those memories."

On behalf of his friend, Stevens can and does.

He recalls that magic day in 2009 at Santa Anita, when Zenyatta and Smith came roaring down the home stretch in the Breeders' Cup Classic. No female horse had won that race, then and now the second richest in the world behind the $10-million Dubai Cup. Nor was it conceivable that a mare could pass all the best males in the world at the end, even though Zenyatta had done it that way every time in races against her own gender.

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