Mike Smith after guiding Justify to victory in the Santa Anita Derby

Mike Smith after guiding Justify to victory in the Santa Anita Derby

Chad B. Harmon

Ageless Smith Has Another Kentucky Derby in His Sights

Hall of Fame jockey hopes Justify gets him his second triumph in the classic.

Blessed. Fortunate. Extraordinary. Extra, extra extraordinary.

Talk to jockey Mike Smith about the state of his career, and those adjectives pop into his vocabulary like a record on repeat. It's not that the living legend is trying to be boastful. More so, it's that his perspective has been so artfully shaped over the years that he can't stop expressing gratitude for the golden opportunities that routinely land at his feet.

Take, for example, the series of events that turned his world upside down and back again just five weeks ago.

Grade 1 winner McKinzie, the colt he piloted to three victories and the upper echelon of this year's 3-year-old male division, suffered an injury that knocked him out of the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and off the Triple Crown trail. The gut punch was softened by the fact Smith also had the mount on McKinzie's leggy stablemate Justify. The colt picked up the mantle in the Santa Anita Derby and gave Smith the honor of guiding the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) favorite this year.

"It just goes to show you how this game can go," Smith said. "One minute you are on the top and you think everything is great. Then (McKinzie) gets hurt, and next thing you know, you're down in the dumps. And in the matter of one day or a race, here comes this superstar. I'm just blessed to be a part of it."

From Zenyatta to Songbird to Arrogate , there always seems to be a supernova warming up in Smith's on-deck circle. And if the chestnut son of Scat Daddy he is set to ride May 5 possesses the reserve of talent his Hall of Fame pilot believes he has, it just might bring an end to one of the few realms of relative misfortune in Smith's orbit.

The 10-furlong obstacle that is the Kentucky Derby is the closest thing to a sticking point still out there for the man who has pretty much won every major North American race many times over. Smith's victory aboard longshot Giacomo in 2005 remains his lone win from 23 mounts in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

No one has or should ever weep for a person with "only" one Kentucky Derby win. But given the quality Smith has been associated with during his more than three decades in the saddle, it is a mild upset the man aptly referred to as "Big Money" hasn't hoisted the golden trophy more than once.

"I've been second (in the Derby) something like (four) times, it's been quite a few," Smith said. "That's the tough thing about the Derby … a lot of things have to come together. Even if you have that talent, a lot of things still have to come together.

"Saying all that, I'm blessed. I'm still getting these opportunities right now, and hopefully I can add to it. I really can't sit there and tell you I wish there could have been more because they've all run well. We just didn't always finish first."

Not since 2012—when he finished second aboard grade 1 winner Bodemeister —has Smith come to Louisville with the fate of the Derby favorite in his hands. As was the case six years ago, he is again putting his faith in a Bob Baffert-trained prodigy who is trying to bring one of the sport's longest-running trends to its knees.

Like Bodemeister before him, Justify has made the rapid ascent from unraced juvenile to buzz boy thanks to some displays of brilliance that could have Apollo—the 1882 Derby hero who stands as the last horse to win the classic without having raced at 2—quaking from the great beyond.

Blessed with Adonis-like physical attributes, Justify was initially prepped by trainer Rodolphe Brisset at Keeneland in October, where the former assistant to Hall of Famer Bill Mott put some early foundation into the rust-colored colt before he was moved into Baffert's barn. Brisset, who helped hone a plethora of top-level runners in his time with Mott, recalls seeing some indicators suggesting he would one day end up telling the story of how he knew Justify.

"He was very babyish. You can see the difference now in that he looks like a racehorse now," Brisset said. "But he was very babyish then. We got three or four breezes into him, and then he was ready to go to the next step. Would I have told you he would be this kind of monster? You never know. But he definitely had the body and the mind for it."

Smith's stature as one of the finest handlers of equine talent allows him to be a bit picky about which horses he rides. That he climbed aboard Justify for the colt's second career outing March 11 at Santa Anita Park was itself an acknowledgment of the colt's ability.

When Justify won his debut by 9 1/2 lengths Feb. 18 under Drayden Van Dyke, the question that came to Baffert in swift fashion was: When are you going to unleash that big boy against stakes company? If the racing community couldn't wait to see how Justify would respond to deeper waters, Smith came out of his initial pairing with the colt—a sublime, 6 1/2-length score over one mile—confident he had to answer to how that script would end.

"He's just so athletic, just the way he felt," Smith said. "He left the gate, and the bounce he had, things just come to him very easy. In the far turn, the first time I rode him, I kind of gave him his head for a jump just to let him kind of switch leads going into that turn, and he literally caught the horses on the lead in one jump. He went on by and just galloped out to where it seemed like distance wasn't going to be a problem.

"That was exciting. And for him to come back and beat a horse like Bolt d'Oro (in the Santa Anita Derby), who I consider to be very, very talented … to beat him the way he did was very impressive."

Smith knows what the stride of a freak feels like, be it the next-level acceleration of Zenyatta or the high cruising power of Songbird. As Justify loped along on the front end of the Santa Anita Derby and then threw more gears at Bolt d'Oro when the multiple grade 1 winner came for him in the lane, Smith said there was a deeper well there to tap into and a professionalism to his mount that belied his race experience.

"Sometimes they just don't have the mind. They need more time to learn to mature," Smith said. "But (Justify) has just got a great mind to go along with all of his talent. Nothing seems to bother him.

"This horse is certainly ready for (the Derby). And to get a horse to the Derby off of three races, that's pretty incredible of Bob (Baffert). It's unbelievable, really, and good Lord willing, we'll get our chance. That's all I ask for is a good, fair chance."

At 52, Smith still crushes those half his years who try and hang with his routine in the gym. When those days start to wane, he says, he'll take it as a sign that his instincts in the saddle might be the next thing to start to go.

Until then, he will continue to bask in his self-made good fortune—appreciative of the chances to duplicate past success.

"Right now, I'm going so strong and I'm so blessed that I've been given some wonderful opportunities to ride all these great horses throughout the years," Smith said. "Experience is so important in anything you do. When you get the experience, and my body is still in good shape, all you need is a real good horse, and you point them in the right direction and make the right moves, and there you are."