Published in the Aug. 2, 2003 issue of The Blood-Horse
Jockey Mike Smith's career is like a football game with two phenomenal halves and a halftime from hell. But with the final gun nowhere in sight, Smith has managed to march the ball straight down the field and into the Hall of Fame.
Smith's pending induction into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame seemed a mere formality when he won back-to-back Eclipse Awards in 1993-94. But just a couple of years later his prospects took a turn south into the realm of "fat chance." His subsequent comeback from near-oblivion would make even John Elway jealous.
The nadir came in August 1998, at Saratoga when Smith and his mount, Dacron, were forced into the hedge. When the brush cleared, Smith, then poised to recapture the top spot among the nation's jockeys, was in a body cast, care of two fractured vertebrae.
In his haste to pick up where he left off, Smith attempted a too-soon comeback and dug an even deeper ditch for himself when he went into a tailspin, unable to get back inside the top barns that had been riding him. The whispers started: "He won't go through holes at the rail. He doesn't have the hunger. He's riding scared." Perception often being reality, Smith had no choice but to make a stand and prove the horse whisperers wrong. He had to grab his tack and head 3,000 miles west to do it, but that was a small price to pay to get his business and reputation back.
After all, the 37-year-old native of Roswell, N.M., has been traveling most of his life. The son of a jockey, Smith was riding Quarter Horses on New Mexico's bush circuit before he hit his teens. He galloped horses throughout the Southwest and scored his first Thoroughbred win at Santa Fe Downs at age 16. From there it was off to Oaklawn Park, Ak-Sar-Ben, Hawthorne, Canterbury Downs, and Churchill Downs. He met trainer Shug McGaughey in Arkansas and rode Pine Circle in the 1984 Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
Then it was on to New York, where Smith studied Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez, and Jerry Bailey. "You weren't going to get to just gallop around there even if you were on the best horse," said Smith. "They make you work for it. That polishes you."
The likable Smith earned his keep, winning big races with Thirty Six Red, Queena, and two-time Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) victor Lure. At Pimlico on Preakness weekend in 1993 he won the Early Times Dixie Handicap (gr. IIIT) with Lure, the Black-Eyed Susan (gr. II) with Aztec Hill, and the Preakness (gr. I) aboard Prairie Bayou. He piloted Sky Beauty to four grade I wins. In all that year he took a record 62 stakes, and the Eclipse Award.
If possible, 1994 was even better, with 67 stakes victories. Sky Beauty was named champion older female, and Smith also rode Horse of the Year Holy Bull, who won eight of 10 that year. A second Eclipse Award ensued. The hits kept coming, with Unbridled's Song and Inside Information winning Breeders' Cup events in 1995; Coronado's Quest, a head case who performed best with Smith aboard; and 1997 Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Skip Away.
Then came the injuries. "I was banking on getting the same kind of horses back and getting on a roll," Smith said. "But I didn't get the horses and didn't get the roll."
The ultimate comeback began in 2001 when Smith decided to change scenery and headed to California, a move tried by many jockeys without the desired results. Smith bided his time, often aboard the fifth-best horse in a six-horse field. Eventually he got into the barns of conditioners like Dick Mandella and D. Wayne Lukas.
By Breeders' Cup 2002 Smith was riding high again aboard Horse of the Year Azeri and 2-year-old male champion Vindication. "That Breeders' Cup with Vindication and the great Azeri knocked down the door to the Hall of Fame for me," said Smith of his "second-half" comeback. "It's a great feeling--even better the second time around. Before you make it to the top you don't know what it feels like. But when you've been up there and then it's gone, you realize what's lost and that's hard to take. So the second time you really appreciate it."
Smith's only problem now is a case of nerves. "I'm nervous because I don't want to leave anybody out of my induction speech. There are so many people I want to thank; I don't know if I have enough time."