Mike Smith was a ninth-grade student when he decided to become a jockey. The son of a rider – with an uncle who trained and grandparents who owned racehorses – he appeared destined to fall in love with the sport. The rest would be up to him.
Smith left his home in Roswell, New Mexico in 1979 and began his career atop quarter horses, taking out his Thoroughbred license in 1982. Secretariat was just six years removed from thrilling the world with his record 31-length winning performance in the Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Seattle Slew took them to the wire four lengths ahead in the muddy 1977 Belmont, and the memory of Affirmed battling Alydar to sweep the Triple Crown in 1978 was still fresh.
In the ensuing years, Smith has become royalty in the Sport of Kings, earning a spot in the Hall of Fame. He now will have the chance to add his name to an even more elite group when he rides Triple Crown hopeful Justify in the 150th running of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on June 9. Justify will be looking to follow American Pharoah's 2015 Triple Crown win, which ended a 37-year drought, into racing history as just the 13th horse to capture the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
“My father rode so I've been kind of born into it. It's a long time ago,” Smith said about his first race at Santa Fe Downs 36 years ago. “I just remember being excited. It was a fun day. We almost won. I just got beat a nose. We came back and won next time he ran.”
It would take a book to list all the victories and champions Smith began adding to his resume after he shifted his tack to Aqueduct Racetrack in November 1989. Less than a year after he settled into the NYRA circuit, he rode Thirty Six Red to victory in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct for his first Grade 1 win.
By the time Smith piloted Coronado's Quest to victory in the 1998 Travers at Saratoga, his achievements comprised two pages in the NYRA media guide.
The road to recovery was lengthy, but once back in the saddle Smith began to think it was time for something different.
“It was a rough time,” Smith said. “I probably came back too quickly from the injury, and things weren't going right. I wasn't really doing very well. It was probably the first time I really ever struggled. Once I started going good enough where I felt comfortable about leaving, I wanted to move out to California and take a fresh start at it, and see what happened.”
Smith moved his tack to the West Coast and gradually returned to the winners' circle at tracks on the California circuit and others. Life began to get better, but at first the future wasn't as bright as he had envisioned.
“I was certainly always looking for that next good horse to ride,” he said. “I was doing OK and winning big races here and there so obviously there was always an opportunity to pick up another good horse and see where it led me, but you never know you're going to get to this point until you actually do.”
Today, Smith hardly has room in his California home for the hardware that displays his two victories in each of the three Classics, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in addition to leading all jockeys in Breeders' Cup wins (26), two Eclipse Awards, and countless others among his induction into the Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in 2003.
This year, when Smith climbed aboard Justify for the first time in March before his 24th career Kentucky Derby mount, they carved what could be a historic path through mud and endurance heading into the “Test of the Champion.”
“It would be unbelievable,” Smith said. “I just want to go in there and just enjoy the whole thing. I'm really happy I'm heading back to New York. It's kind of home for me so to say. I spent many years there, I've got a lot of great friends and fans there, and I'm going to enjoy it.
“I'm getting towards the end of my career as well, but I'm very blessed that I'm doing really, really well and I'm happy riding. I feel great. I can see myself doing this for another few years then we'll see what happens.”
The 1 ½-mile Belmont is a short gallop compared to the distance Smith has come since his first victory at that little track in Santa Fe in 1982. Nobody knew when he guided a 4-year-old gelding named Future Man to victory, and returned to win his last mount of the day aboard California Reign, that those names foreshadowed things to come. Smith has gone on to smile in more than 5,450 winners' circle photos at tracks all over the country, Canada, Ireland and Dubai. He may have more to smile about this weekend.
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