By Ciara Bowen
Like many children, Mike Smith dreamt of one day following in his father's footsteps, and as the son of a jockey those footsteps led straight to the racetrack. That profession, though full of risk, proved the right one for him.
Born in Roswell, N.M., Smith began riding races at age 11 and took out his license there in 1982 at age 16. Now—31,529 starts later—he finds himself a member not only of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, but of the ingoing class of 2014 for similar honors in his native state.
Smith became one of the most prolific Thoroughbred jockeys in the U.S. in the 1990s, and has rarely lacked for success since then. With two Eclipse Awards and the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award, he found himself at home on both East and West coasts, but finally settled in California.
He is the all-time leading Breeders' Cup jockey by wins with 20, and in 2005 rode 50-1 shot Giacomo to victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). He also won the Preakness (gr. I) on Prairie Bayou in 1993 and took two editions of the Belmont (gr. I)—in 2010 with Drosselmeyer and in 2013 with Palace Malice. He was the regular rider for Holy Bull, Azeri, and Zenyatta, all outstanding equines who won Horse of the Year honors (for a full bio, visit his website).
The 49-year-old rider is still highly sought after and remains at the top of his game. Here, he talks about his love for racing and some of the horses he's guided throughout the course of his career. He will be inducted into the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame Feb. 23.
What was it like growing up riding in New Mexico?
"It was great. When I first started around there, I was pretty young. It taught me a lot. And I didn't stay in New Mexico very long once I started professionally, but it got me the experience I needed to get me started anyway."
Tell me about Santa Fe. You go home there to spend time with your family during the holidays?
"Yeah, I go on Christmas and other holidays. Christmas time is beautiful in New Mexico. It's just beautiful to be around."
What do you love most about New Mexico?
"Mostly I'd say I love their food! It's just a beautiful state, it really is. When I was young, I was restless to get out of there and start riding other places, but now I just love to go back."
You grew up watching and riding with jockeys like Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr. What was that like?
"They were the top riders back then. You learned a lot from them, just from watching them, you know? It was a great opportunity to be around them. You're around the best and being around the best, you learn to be the best."
What jockey did you fear the most? Who do you fear now?
"Anyone better than I am!"
What advice would you give a young person trying to get involved in the industry?
"Find out what you want to do and surround yourself around the right people. They can really help you and teach you and be an influence on you. Find the right people to work with and to work for."
Do you enjoy helping younger riders?
"Yes! I enjoy it a lot. Coming up, a lot of great people helped me out, so I like to do the same. "
ABR Live just put out a video of your training regimen. You hit the gym pretty hard! What's your fitness program like?
"I train quite a bit, actually, at least 6 days a week most of the time. I have a private trainer that trains me. I used to do a lot of interval training, a lot of stuff really. I do it all. I train everything. I run about two miles a day and then train for about an hour and that's pretty much it."
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With all of your accomplishments, what motivates you to keep riding?
"I just love horses. I'm having more fun riding right now than I've probably ever had. I'm just so blessed to be riding some great horses for some great people, and I'm really enjoying it."
Speaking of the horses, who is the best you've ridden?
"That's tough. I've been riding so many great horses. I guess the one that would be the most popular would be Zenyatta. I didn't know what it was at first with her, but I knew I was on something good."
Zenyatta always came from behind. Can you recall a big race where you thought you had no chance for a win, and the horse completely surprised you and turned on the gas?
"They do that a lot. There's been times they're so far back you think, There's no way! And then they explode and get up to win by a nose."
You go to the farm to visit Zenyatta now that she's retired. Have you done that with other horses?
"Oh yeah. I mean, you know, you get close to them and you shouldn't get too attached but you can't help it when they're something like her."
Who are some of your favorites besides her?
"Holy Bull. Holy Bull was an amazing horse...Holy Bull and Lure."
You won the Kentucky Derby on Giacomo, a son of Holy Bull. What was it like to win the race on a son of such a highly regarded horse?
"Great! It was great because I rode Holy Bull in the Derby and for whatever reason he just didn't fire that day. Getting to win it on a son of his was just amazing."
"Mizdirection? In one word? I'm not sure I can do it in just one word. I can do it in a few words. Mizdirection was unbeatable down the hill. It was her course. It was like sliding down an Olympic hill going 80 miles an hour. She just knew it so well. Palace Malice: talented. You haven't seen the best of him yet; he's going to be a really nice older horse. Game On Dude is a warrior. Royal Delta was incredible, beautiful. Bodemeister was just another who was extremely talented—very fast, with a lot of stamina."
You've been riding for over 30 years, yet almost all your Triple Crown race wins came in the last 10 years. Why?
"I was always getting close and I finally got there. When I was finally able to win it on a son of Holy Bull it was pretty incredible. It's a lot of riding experience. Some people are just coming late, you know?"
Here's a question that came in from one of your fans on Twitter—on a sloppy track, who would you rather ride: Zenyatta or Inside Information?
"I never rode Zenyatta on a sloppy track. Inside won by 13 1/2 lengths on a sloppy track in the 1995 Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I), which is the largest margin of victory in a Breeder's Cup event. They were great horses; I think I'd ride either one of them."
You've ridden some champion mares in your career. In your opinion, is there anything that sets good mares apart from good colts?
"Not necessarily. You've just gotta have the ability to balance and have the talent, whether it be a colt or a filly."
Most underappreciated or lesser-known favorite horse?
"A horse called Prairie Bayou. That was a great horse. He got hurt in the Belmont and they put him down, but he was a great horse. He was never worse than second any time he ran."
You've been a part of some cool promotions as an athlete, from appearing in ESPN's Body issue to being a part of Animal Planet's TV series "Jockeys." What was it like to be on that show?
"There was a lot of trouble to film all that. There were cameras all over and following you everywhere, but once it was all done and on TV it looked pretty cool. I was riding Zenyatta at the time the show was being taped, so it was pretty cool to me that she won most of the time."
How do you hope people will remember you from both riding and personal standpoints as you leave your mark on the sport?
"I try to ride the best I know how to ride. I love horses, I truly do. I like people to know that and I hope it shows in my riding, let's put it that way. I have to be the best I can possibly be."
With all that you've accomplished in racing, do you think about a second career? What would that look like for you?
"I often find myself thinking about it. Something in the industry, I'm just not exactly sure what. It's not really clear to me yet. I just don't want to stop riding."