Smith Admits Some Guilt About Hall Induction

(from Del Mar report)
Standing on the threshold of racing's Hall of Fame, jockey Mike Smith is still waiting for the fact to sink in. He knows that on Monday, when his moment of induction comes, he will be stunned. He just hopes he'll be able to speak.

His close friend and comrade at arms on the Southern California circuit, Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, will present him to the assemblage at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs.

The 37-year-old native of Roswell, N.M., followed his star from Santa Fe Downs, Albuquerque and Sunland Park in his home state to several Midwest venues, New York and finally to Southern California. He found success everywhere, setting records for stakes victories and money won, winning track riding titles and more than 4,000 races, including 10 Breeders' Cup championships, and two Eclipse Awards as North America's best jockey.

While his resume speaks loudly of his Hall of Fame worthiness, he's not sure about the timing. As he says, he's from the old school and he's not sure he should go in instead of the two retired riders who were on the ballot – Eddie Maple and Randy Romero.

"I was surprised to see them on the ballot," Smith said. "I thought they were already in there. They certainly belong in there. They are both unbelievable human beings. I look up to them so much. When I found out I won, to be honest with you, I felt kind of guilty.

"I'm still around riding and winning great races and they've been retired for awhile. Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that I was voted in, but I guess out of respect – I'm old school, you know – I felt a little guilty. I came up while those guys were still riding and I learned from them. As far as I'm concerned, they belong in there before me."

As thrilled as he is about his imminent induction, Smith considers the day that he was told he was on the ballot one of the greatest days in his career. When he found out about the company he was in, he said, he figured he wouldn't get in over Maple and Romero. However, since his election, he said, "I just sort of can't believe it. I know that when I step up there, I probably won't be able to say a word. I'll probably just cry."

Smith's career was in major jeopardy as recently as five years ago. He suffered a broken back in a frightening spill at Saratoga in the summer of 1998 and he was in a full body cast for several months before returning to action in the winter of 1999 at Gulfstream Park, a return he now considers much too quick.

"It's probably the only time I wondered if I would ever be able to compete at that level again," he said. "Just through hard work and determination and my body healing, I was able to come back. I feel like a million dollars again. Sometimes I even forget I even broke it. I used to always have a reminder, every time I moved and every time I woke up."

There's little doubt that he is back at the top level of riding. He has been riding for such trainers as Richard Mandella, Bob Baffert, Paco Gonzalez and Laura de Seroux. He has been the regular rider for de Seroux's Horse of the Year Azeri, who gave him his ninth Breeders' Cup victory in last year's Distaff. He won his 10th with Baffert trainee Vindication in the Juvenile. He captured Del Mar's Pacific Classic last year aboard Came Home for Gonzalez.

Of Azeri, Smith said: "She's just an amazing filly. When I look back on some of the great fillies and mares I've ridden – Inside Information, Sky Beauty, Heavenly Prize and Jersey Girl, all champions – I was starting to compare her to them, but she's just gone on and on and on. I think she'll go down in history."