Riders Up
by Dan Liebman
Date Posted: 5/24/2005 1:58:27 PM
Last Updated: 5/24/2005 2:01:56 PM

A politician wins the primary but is defeated in the general election. A pro football player on a winning Super Bowl team is traded to the worst team in the league. A rider wins the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), and then two weeks later loses the Preakness (gr. I).

All are examples of how people can be up one minute and down the next; examples of how in the blink of an eye, you can go from the flavor of the week to an unnoticed person toiling in your profession.

A Delta flight attendant heading from Baltimore to Cincinnati the morning of May 22 recognized Mike Smith as the Derby winning jockey. She also knew he had not won the preceding day's Preakness.

She has better days than others, but if the plane goes up and comes back down safely, it is a winning day. Smith knows he can't win on every mount...but he tries to.

"Emotionally you have to learn how to deal with it," Smith said of the constant highs and lows of his profession. "It is all part of growing up."

Smith won the Derby on Giacomo, a colt no one else has ever ridden. He believed in the son of Holy Bull, whom he was also aboard when that colt failed as the favorite in the 1994 Derby.

For two weeks, Smith was on one of those natural highs that come from winning the world's most famous race. The high ended in the Preakness, when he and Giacomo finished third.

"What I accomplished two weeks ago they can't take away from me," the rider said. "Winning the Derby was awesome. Losing the Preakness was disappointing. But what Afleet Alex did, for him to stay up and run well, was amazing."

In other words, while Smith may have been down after the Preakness, Jeremy Rose, who rode Afleet Alex, was up. All in just under two minutes.

"It's a constant emotional roller coaster," Smith said of his profession. "One minute you're on top of the world and 30 minutes can change the world.

"You grow up, you get older and learn that you have to let it go. You can't drag it to the next one."

The reason you can't drag it to the next one, Smith said, is because horses are intelligent animals. They sense how their partner is feeling.

"If you've got a dog, you know they can tell when you're sad," he said. "They'll just curl up next to you on the couch without you saying a word. Horses can feel and sense things as well. They feel how a jockey is acting, how he carries himself. It may be hard to let it go, but you have to."

How many times, Smith said, does a rider lose a race only to agonize over what he could have done differently?

"What if I had moved sooner? What if I had gone inside instead of outside?"

While Smith was on his two-week high, is it possible Rose thought he was actually on the best horse in the Derby?

"Sure, that's possible," Smith said. "That's what I mean, that you question yourself afterward but then you have to let it go. And it's hard to let it go.

"Jeremy and Afleet Alex ran a great race in the Derby. Jeremy had him in perfect position. He just got beat.

"In the Preakness, I thought my horse ran well. I had a rough trip and thought I should have been second. But Giacomo ran well. He ran gallantly; he quieted the critics.

"When you leave the jocks' room, your dream is to win the race. You prepare yourself mentally for what that will take. It is OK to get up as an athlete. But then you have to let it go. There is another race coming up."

Somewhere, a flight attendant was telling co-workers and family about seeing Smith. Little did she know that he was headed to Churchill Downs where the day after finishing third in a classic, he was third in his first mount, a non-winners of one "other than" allowance.

It is the life of a jockey. Riders up. Riders down. But there is always another race.

Mike Smith knows.

Jeremy Rose knows too.

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