Jockey Mike Smith ranks with the sport's greats: more than 5,400 career wins, the most Breeders' Cup victories, nearly $300 million in purse earnings, 2003 induction into the Racing Hall of Fame. But when the 51-year-old New Mexico native hangs up his tack for the final time, many fans will remember him as racing's "ladies' man."
First there was 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, who Smith rode for most of her career. Then came Zenyatta. Smith took over as Zenyatta's rider for her fourth start and the two remained a team throughout the mare's career.
Zenyatta won 19 of 20 starts, losing only her career finale when her late charge came up a head short of Blame in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic (G1). The 2010 Horse of the Year retired with career earnings of $7,304,580.
Smith viewed his journey with Zenyatta as once in a lifetime, noting, "I hadn't even given a thought that there could be another filly or mare that could approach Zenyatta's talent level or heart."
Then along came Songbird.
Smith will be aboard that daughter of Medaglia d'Oro —Ivanavinalot, by West Acre July 15 when the two-time champion goes after her 13th career win in the $750,000 Delaware Handicap (G1) at Delaware Park. Unlike Zenyatta, who was guided by David Flores early in her career, Smith has ridden Fox Hill Farms' Songbird in every one of her previous 13 starts. The rider was immediately impressed the first time he saw Songbird when she came in with several horses owner Rick Porter had sent to trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
"From the very first, I couldn't wait to get on her," Smith said, "She was a little leggy and was still a baby and a bit green, but you could tell right from the first she was something special. Once I started getting on her, the first thing that struck me was not only how naturally fast she was but how smart she was.
"If she did something wrong or got a bit confused or flustered from lack of experience to a certain situation, she learned from it right away and the next time she was ready and composed. Schooling her was as much her learning what to do as there was teaching her how to do it."
Smith has enjoyed seeing Songbird gather racing experience.
"Moving from 2 to 3 was pretty smooth because she matured and filled out quickly. So from a physical standpoint, she progressed nicely. From a racing standpoint, she was so naturally fast and so smart that she dominated her early races," Smith said. "Once other trainers realized her speed wasn't going to come back to them, some changed their tactics and figured they'd try to get up in her (Songbird's) face earlier in races and see if she would crack. Those who employed that tact found out that she's not just another fast horse, she's a warrior.
"When we're on the lead and someone tries to get up on our flank and challenge us, I don't have to shake her up or send her to repulse that challenge. She senses them and picks it up on her own. It's like she says, 'You can run up to me but you're not going to run by me.'"
Songbird enters the July 15 Delaware Handicap off a clear score in the Ogden Phipps Stakes (G1) June 10 at Belmont Park. That victory marked her 4-year-old debut.
"I was interested in how she handled the progression from the 3-year-olds to racing against older horses once she turned 4, but I was very pleased with her first start back in the Phipps Stakes at Belmont," Smith said. "She was able to handle the surface at Belmont which is sandier and a bit more tiring than West Coast tracks, and she dug in well when challenged in the stretch by that other horse (Paid Up Subscriber) and wouldn't let her go by. It was a very good race for her and she's trained great since so I expect her to bring her A game Saturday."
Songbird knows when it's time to relax and when it's time to get serious.
"She's great around the barn, friendly and good to be around," the rider points out, "But when they pull her hay rack on race day, she knows she's going to be going out to do battle and she puts on her game face. When she comes into the paddock, I can see it in her demeanor, she's focused, zeroed in, and wants to be tacked up so her and me can get on the track and go about our business. In short, she's a professional, a warrior, and a true champion."
While Songbird's opposition Saturday is far from world class, there is a bit more riding on this race as her ailing owner, Porter, will get a chance to see his star race at his home track. Porter has been battling cancer and just completed an experimental course of treatment at Massachusetts General. He got a very good report from his doctors on July 13 and is expected to be on hand to watch Songbird run.
Smith said he hopes Porter will be able to see Songbird many more times.
"Mr. Porter gave me the opportunity to ride a horse that will go down in history as one of the greatest distaff runners the sport has ever seen and for that I'll be forever grateful. If you ask any jock, they'll tell you being lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time can often make the difference in a rider's career and I'm no different," Smith said. "For a jockey to catch lightning in a bottle once can be a life changer. I've been fortunate enough to catch that lightning twice. A lot of people ask me to compare the two (Zenyatta and Songbird) and it's nearly impossible to do because their running styles are so radically different.
"All I can tell you is that they're both two things; champions and warriors and being their rider has defined my career."