Mike Smith guides Justify to Triple Crown, oldest jockey
NEW YORK (AP) — The thoroughbred horse racing world belongs to “Big Money Mike” Smith.
The 52-year-old jockey who has been dominating big races in recent years put an exclamation point on his illustrious career Saturday, guiding Justify to the Triple Crown with a victory in the Belmont Stakes.
In sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, Smith becomes the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. It’s the pinnacle of a career that has seen him win more than 5,400 races, including a record 26 in the Breeders’ Cup, and now seven Triple Crown races. His mounts have earned more than $310 million.
This was another perfect ride. Breaking from the less-than-desired No. 1 post, Smith gunned Justify to the lead and never looked back.
“This horse ran a tremendous race, he’s so gifted,” said Smith, who looked to the sky to celebrate after his ride. “He’s sent from heaven. I tell you, it’s just amazing. I can’t describe the emotions going through my body right now.”
Smith had made a point of saying before the Belmont that he didn’t feel like he had done that much to be in the thoroughbred Hall of Fame.
“Yeah, I belong now,” said Smith, who ripped carnations from the garland of flowers draped on Justify after the race and tossed them in the air to celebrate.
When fans roared at him in appreciation on the way back to the winner’s circle, Smith calmly point to Justify.
“He’s so brilliant. Did you see him in the gate, he’s standing so still,” Smith said. “I thought maybe he’s not going to break today. He lifted like he’s going 440 yards in Roswell, New Mexico.”
Smith is clearly at the top of his game in a sport where jockeys are riding less and less in their 50s.
When owners and trainers want someone to get their mounts to the wire first, it’s not surprising they turn to Smith. The New Mexico native won 15 Grade 1 races in 2017, including nine with Bob Baffert, the trainer of Justify and now a two-time Triple Crown winner.
Baffert broke a 37-year drought in 2015 with American Pharoah.
What’s ahead for Smith remains to be seen. He has reduced his riding schedule in recent years to concentrate on riding the sport’s best horses. He has ridden such outstanding horses as Zenyatta, Royal Delta, Songbird, Shared Belief and Game On Dude, but riding Justify has taken him to a new level.
Victor Espinoza, who rode American Pharoah to a Triple Crown, did a television commercial leading up the Triple Crown races this year. It shows a horse eating the flowers off a women’s hat and the jockey reimbursing her in the winner’s circle with Quick Pay.
The one thing Smith isn’t looking at is the grind of having six or seven mounts a card and early morning workouts. He’s been there and done that.
His days now are spent staying in shape with a rigorous workout schedule that keeps him in top condition to use his vast experience in handling the best horses in the business.
The way things went this year, don’t be surprised to see Smith riding a good one in next year’s Triple Crown races.