SportsPulse: Looking to make some bets for Saturday’s Run for the Roses? The Courier-Journal’s Jason Frakes tells you the names you need to know for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
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LOUISVILLE — When Bill Shoemaker courageously snuck longshot Ferdinand up the rail through a thicket of traffic to win the 1986 Kentucky Derby, it was something of a last hurrah for a legendary riding career.
Shoemaker, 54 at the time, could still steal a big race but was no longer the go-to rider for the best horses like he had been for much of his career. To this day, winning a Derby in his 50s remains one of the more unique Triple Crown achievements for any jockey.
But if favorite Justify wins Saturday, putting Mike Smith in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle for a second time at age 52, it will not seem like nearly as much of a time-defying feat. That’s because Smith has turned the twilight years of his career into arguably his most potent chapter.
“Mike has had a better last 10 years, I think, than he did the previous 10 years,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “He’s doing everything right right now.”
Big Money Mike, as he’s become known on the backstretch, enters this Kentucky Derby as arguably the one thing that you can count on in a race that’s always full of unknowns. While there’s never a guarantee about what’s going to happen when the gates open, Smith’s highlight reel of rides in big races over the last decade is unrivaled.
And it’s why, at a time in most jockey’s careers when they usually aren’t the first call for owners and trainers, he’s now the guy trainers like Bob Baffert want on their horses in the biggest races.
“You want big-money riders, and Mike is a big-money rider,” said Elliott Walden, the president/CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Justify.
Though none of Smith’s five Triple Crown race wins have been with Baffert — he won the 2005 Derby with longshot Giacomo for trainer John Shirreffs — the two have formed a potent partnership recently.
Last year, Smith won an astonishing 15 Grade 1 races, the most since he won 20 back in 1994. Of those, nine were with Baffert trainees, a partnership that really blossomed in 2016 when Smith rode Arrogate to wins in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“A lot of these riders, they get nervous. There’s a lot of pressure on them, but Mike’s been there so many times,” Baffert said. “Mike finds ways to get things done. He’s given us some really exciting wins. The thing about Mike, he knows that I’m not worried about him so there’s not that extra pressure. He knows he’s not going to get fired.”
One of the most exciting came in March of 2017 when Smith piloted Arrogate to a win in the Dubai World Cup after a disastrous break that left him in last place, cementing the jockey as the best in the game regardless of age.
Equal parts patient and opportunistic, Smith never gave up on the race even though all seemed lost. More importantly, he didn’t panic and use up his horse to get back to the front, which was typically the plan given Arrogate’s natural speed. Instead, he called an audible and waited until exactly the right time, circling the field to win an improbable victory under the circumstances.
“He’s a great horse, but Mike gave him every chance, just picking up pieces and not asking for too much at any stage in the race,” said Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who is now an analyst for NBC Sports. “It was a very smart ride considering what happened.”
That’s been a common theme for Smith, whether it was timing his late move just right with all-time filly Zenyatta, thundering down the middle of the track to beat the boys in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic or changing tactics on Todd Pletcher-trained Palace Malice in the 2013 Belmont to spring a 13-1 upset after fading in the Derby.
From Songbird to Royal Delta to Shared Belief and Game On Dude, no rider in the country has found himself on more great horses in the last handful of years. But there’s a reason for that: He’s earned it.
“In my opinion Mike’s one of the greatest athletes of our time, any sport,” said Jeffrey Bloom, a former jockey and managing director of Bloom Racing, whose filly Midnight Bisou will have Smith aboard in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks. “He’s in his 50s acting like he’s in his 20s. You get asked all the time what your strategy is going to be for a race, but when you have Mike Smith on one of your horses the beauty of it is you can sit back, relax and know that you’ve put all of that in the hands of the best in the business. Especially in these big money situations, nobody’s better.”
The unique part of it, though, is that it’s the second stretch of Smith’s career where he’s been on those kinds of horses. A full quarter-century ago, he was on top of the sport as the regular rider for champions like Holy Bull, Lure, Sky Beauty, Heavenly Prize and Inside Information.
Now, thanks to both his desire to stay in it and his high level of fitness, he’s been able to maintain his skills at an age when many riders are on their way out.
“He’s in the gym every time I talk to him,” Walden said. “He works hard at it.”
Smith, who is based in Southern California, also maintains a more conservative schedule built toward the big races. Last year, he had 275 total mounts — far below the 900-1,200 typical of the top jockeys — and is on a similar pace this year with just 89 races ridden. But because of his success in the stakes races, he was top-five in earnings (his mounts earned $20.5 million) and has a chance this year for the greatest Triple Crown success of his career with Justify.
“It’s not that abnormal to see a jockey dominate big races like Mike Smith has for a period of three, four, five years, but the fact he’s done it at the tail end of his career, that’s the strange part,” Bailey said. “I retired at 48. They call him Big Money Mike because that’s when he shows up. He’s very effective in the biggest races.”
That doesn’t guarantee anything on Saturday with Justify, but having Smith on his back certainly gives him a head start on greatness.