Mike Smith not near finish line after 5,000 wins

April 8, 2012

Mike Smith was more relieved than celebratory after his 5,000th career victory. Kind of how the Hall of Fame jockey felt during Zenyatta's 19-0 winning streak.

Smith won $150,000 stakes races back-to-back Saturday at Santa Anita to reach the milestone, the 25th jockey in thoroughbred history to do so. He accomplished the feat riding one of his favorite horses, Amazombie, last year's champion sprinter.

Smith won by three-quarters of a length, never needing his whip to get home first. He deliberately rode lower in the saddle.

''I got down just to show the guys in the (jockeys') room that the old guy could still get down,'' he said, laughing. ''I got to shake the young boys up in the room every now and then.''


At 46, Smith isn't riding as many races as his younger competition. He ranks 24th in purse earnings nationally, with $1.5 million so far this year. Among the top 25 jockeys in purse money, Smith has the fewest starts of any of them. Leading money winner Ramon Dominguez has ridden more than 200 races than Smith this year.

''I'm not winning a lot of them, but we're winning the right ones,'' he said. ''That's what really matters to me.''

Smith has built a reputation as a big-money rider, with his greatest success coming in the Breeders' Cup, including three wins in the $5 million Classic. He and retired Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey are tied for the most victories in the event's history with 15. Smith has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont once each in a career that began when he took out his jockey's license in 1982.

''My career has been incredible. I wouldn't trade it with no one,'' Smith said. ''I'm happy with the way I'm riding. I can win races and be unhappy and right now I feel really good. I'm having more fun now than I've had in a long time.''

Smith may be best known as the regular rider of Zenyatta, the superstar mare who won 19 of 20 career races before retiring in November 2010. He guided her to 17 consecutive victories and was aboard for her only defeat, the Breeders' Cup Classic in her last race.

''As the win streak went on and on and on with Zenyatta, it got to be more of a relief every time we got the next one off,'' he said. ''It was more of a `whew' instead of a celebration.''

After Smith reached 5,000 in the $150,000 Potrero Grande Stakes, he kissed Amazombie on the neck and raised his riding helmet, his usual gesture after a stakes win.

''I'm just happy that I finally got it done and to do it on Amazombie for Bill Spawr was really special,'' Smith said. ''He's been one of the guys, him and John Shirreffs, who have been behind me really, really strong since I've been out in California and it's nice to win it for him.''

Smith grew up the son of a jockey in Roswell, N.M. He started out at small tracks in the Southwest, never doubting he had made the right career decision.

''I thought everything I did worked,'' he recalled. ''I was having so much fun everywhere I was at. I remember being at El Paso when the wind was blowing 90 miles an hour and winning races and thinking this was the greatest place I've ever seen in my life.''

Eventually, Smith moved to Canterbury Downs in Minnesota. His career began taking off when he relocated to New York in 1989. He became the dominant rider on the circuit, winning 14 titles at Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga from 1991-93.

Smith's career was nearly derailed in 1998 because of injuries, the worst one a spill at Saratoga in which he broke two vertebrae. He had to wear a body cast and was sidelined six months.

''I wouldn't change none of it,'' he said. ''I'm not even sure I would change the injuries. They all meant something. They all made me grow in a different way.''

Based in Southern California since 2007, Smith plans to ride next week at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas before returning to Santa Anita.

Russell Baze and Laffit Pincay Jr., now retired, set the bar nearly out of reach with more than 10,000 victories each. Smith is more modest about his immediate goal.

''I'm still getting the opportunities to compete with some really good horses. So as long as that continues I see myself being around for a few more years,'' he said. ''I'll just say five. Who knows? I might still feel the same way at five more.''