hen you’ve been racing Thoroughbreds for 41 years like Mike Smith, you pick up some practices and mantras that stay with you. They don’t protect you from the disappointing losses and aching injuries - of which Mike has had plenty - but they do remind you that when things go right, you’ve earned it.
“I hate the word luck,” said Mike, who, at 52 years old, has been inducted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame, won two Kentucky Derbies and Preakness Stakes, three Belmont Stakes, and twenty-six Breeders’ Cup World Championships. “It seems like the harder you work the luckier you get, but I don’t necessarily believe in it. People are certainly blessed, but using the word luck seems lazy to me. Some people say, ‘well he got lucky,’ but I worked hard for each and every opportunity and I have made the most out of them.”
"They do the usual, unusually well."
As the final leg of the Triple Crown - the Belmont Stakes - quickly approaches on Saturday, June 9, ‘Big Money’ Mike is gearing up for the race of his life aboard an unbeaten chestnut colt named Justify. The pair has the chance to become the thirteenth duo in horse racing history to raise the coveted Triple Crown trophy.
Photo courtesy of Mike Lizzi
“There is a motto that Claiborne Farms goes by that I think it’s the coolest thing,” Mike said. “They say, ‘They do the usual, unusually well.’ They do the simple things, the things you are supposed to do, but they are doing them better than anyone else.
“Sometimes you forget about the basic mechanics… you lose focus. You are looking for more, pushing to ride for more, but if you just sit back and do the simple things better than everyone, that’s really what it takes.”
Great Jockeys, Great Horses
Good jockeys and great jockeys both put in the hours at the gym and on the horses. They both have a love for the game and the horse. But there’s a fine line between them.
“One wrong decision, one split second - and it’s over. The great [jockeys] seem to be able to slow things down and let a race develop, or attack it when you think that it’s a good opportunity,” Mike said.
“The great jockeys are decisive in what they do. Sometimes a good horse could make an ordinary jockey great, especially if you learn how to be a good passenger. It’s hard to be a good passenger - [jockeys] seem to want to do things, when you are better off sitting still.”
As Justify enters the Belmont Stakes as the heavy favorite, Mike carries the pressure from the owners, the colt’s trainer and fans all begging to see another Triple Crown winner. No matter the outcome of the race, Mike will be critiqued on every move he makes.
“I have a job to do and Justify has a job to do,” Mike said. “I am excited about him running in this last leg, I feel good about his chances. I think you are going to see Justify run a monster race. I think he’s sitting on it.”
Many have compared Justify to American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown winner, who was also trained by Bob Baffert. Though similar, the two have had very different paths that led them to the Belmont Stakes. What can’t be argued is the speed and ability both horses possess on the racetrack.
“Everyone always says a good horse has that ‘it’ factor, but no one ever seems to know what ‘it’ is,” Mike said. “The great ones, their mechanics are just amazing, they have speed and then they have more speed. They have a mind to go along with it, that is the difference.”
“As a jockey, you learn from situations that you got yourself into when you were younger.”
Over the years Mike has had a variety of day-to-day routines. Amateur jockeys fight for every single mount that they get on. Not just in the afternoons for actual races, but in the mornings on the backside where jockeys and their agents try and build relationships and network with trainers and owners. Today, Mike’s established career allows him to pick and choose which horses he rides. He looks for ones that he can help mold and shape into great runners.
The best jockeys take the time to evaluate each and every horse they ride in a race and must adapt to the unique running styles and quirks of each horse they take into the starting gate.
“As a jockey, you learn from situations that you got yourself into when you were younger,” Mike said. “You gain knowledge about everything, how to handle a horse, making sure that safety comes first. You get so competitive sometimes when you are young that you might put yourself and the horse in harm's way when you maybe didn’t need to.”
Good jockey or great jockey, the ‘why’ is what keeps you coming back each day.
“[It’s about] the love for the sport and for riding,” Mike said. “It pulls you through every time you fall down. The love I have for the horses has helped me overcome everything that’s happene to me - when I was injured, or when broke my back - they are how I overcome fear. Love is more powerful than anything.”
Photos courtesy of Mike Lizzi, Penelope Miller, and EquiSport Photos