By Richard Rosenblatt
As a new decade begins, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith just keeps riding into the record books.
His latest accomplishment, of course, was breaking the record for career Grade 1 victories with No. 217 aboard popular 3-year-old Omaha Beach in the Malibu Stakes (G1) on opening day at Santa Anita Park on Dec. 28.
Earlier on the card, he had tied Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey’s standard of 216 Grade 1 wins by booting home long shot Hard Not to Love in the La Brea Stakes.
It’s really hard not to like Mike. Always smiling, always thoughtful, always with a few minutes for fans, 54-year-old “Big Money Mike” has just about done it all in horse racing – starting by breaking horses at the age of eight in New Mexico to winning the Triple Crown aboard Justify in 2018.
“I’m amazed to be where I am, blessed to still be in the game,’’ Smith said in a recent interview as he gears up for what could be another stellar season. “To be riding at such a high level and to be able to get to ride such great horses at my age … amazing. And I feel great.”
In 2019, the year after piloting Justify to victories in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Preakness (G1) and Belmont Stakes (G1), Smith brought home winners in 10 Grade 1 races, including Midnight Bisou (Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps, Personal Ensign), Omaha Beach (Arkansas Derby, Santa Anita Sprint Championship, Malibu), McKinzie (Whitney) and Roadster (Santa Anita Derby).
With a riding schedule he limits to 250-300 races per year, Smith finished 2019 with more than $10 million in earnings, and finished in the top 3 in 50 percent of his races. He’s been a go-to rider for two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert and if he becomes available for a big race, be sure he’ll have a mount as soon as possible.
Smith is eager to get going, though there was a slight hiccup on the early road to the 2020 Derby with Honor A.P. The John Shirreffs-trained colt was “slightly off” after a recent breeze, and won’t run in Saturday’s Sham Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita.
Nonetheless, Smith is looking at the richest races in the world to be run over the next three months. He’ll be aboard 4-year-old Omaha Beach in $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 27, and then it’s on to the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 29 with Midnight Bisou. And, he says, it’s a little early to know which horse he’ll climb aboard when the $12 million Dubai World Cup rolls around on March 28.
Of course, there’s the Derby trail to consider, too. For now, Honor A.P. looks capable of turning into a top contender once his issue is resolved. After finishing second in his debut despite a slow start and going five wide at Del Mar, the colt came up big in breaking his maiden, winning by 5 ¼ lengths at a mile.
“This is a colt I love a lot,’’ Smith said. “He has a lot of ability, and is not without a big chance.”
Looking back on 2019, Smith had a tough time picking his favorite race, calling three of them the most “fun races” for him. Not in any order, he mentioned Midnight Bisou’s winning stretch duel with Elate in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga, McKinzie’s victory in the Whitney at the Spa, and Omaha Beach coming back after missing the Triple Crown races and winning a pair of Grade 1’s sandwiched around a second to Spun to Run in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1).
Smith’s achievements speak for themselves: Entering his 39th year of riding, he has a record 26 Breeders’ Cup wins, two Eclipse Awards, two Derby wins, two Preakness wins, three Belmont wins, a Triple Crown, 5,556 career winners and more than $328 million in earnings (third on the all-time list).
Smith has ridden some of the great champions to victory in some of the sport’s most lucrative races, among them Arrogate, Zenyatta, Songbird, Justify, Azeri and Midnight Bisou.
His love of the game, especially in the aftermath of so many horse deaths at Santa Anita in 2019, shines through just about every time he talks about the sport.
“A horse is an amazing animal. They bring so much joy and so much pleasure to so many people, in so many different ways,’’ Smith said. “I truly believe in my heart of hearts, that this is a sport that should go on to the end of time…The good Lord willing and horses stay happy and safe, I think the game will get back on track on its own. Once these great horses start running, you can’t help but want to come out and watch ’em and love ’em.”
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.