Living legend

Jockey Mike Smith will be remembered for a lot of things. His amazing partnership with 2010 Horse of the Year Zenyatta and his unlikely victory with 50-1 longshot Giacomo in the 2005 Kentucky Derby barely make a dent in the list of accolades that follow his name.

Smith was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003. He has won the Derby and the Preakness once each and the Belmont twice, most recently last year with Palace Malice. He has also taken the Breeders' Cup Classic, and pretty much every other major race you can name.


This game has taken me all over the world, and I have been so blessed and done so many great things.

"-- Mike Smith, Hall of Fame jockey

As of now, Smith is also first on the all-time list for wins in the Breeders' Cup, with 20 victories. Beyond that, he has won an ESPY and has been named the outstanding jockey twice at the Eclipse Awards, among many other honors and accolades.

But on Feb. 23, Smith won't be found riding in a glamorous stakes race as the sport heads full steam ahead into Triple Crown season. Instead, he will be home, getting inducted into the New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame.

With so success, one might think the induction set to take place in his home state would be nothing more than a footnote to Smith. You would be wrong.

"Getting inducted into your home state's hall of fame is pretty cool," he said. "I am really honored, to be honest. I feel blessed to be in horse racing's hall of fame, but getting into your home state's hall of fame, it means a little something different. The only way I would miss this is if it fell on a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup day."

Smith's career officially started when he was 16, as that is the age he took out his rider's license. However, he began riding several years earlier in match races in New Mexico, and Smith estimates his actual career began at around 11 or 12.

"I decided at a very young age that I loved football, but I realized I was never going to grow big enough to compete," explained Smith. "But I was very athletic, and I wanted to do something in sports. A lot of my family was involved in horse racing, and one day I said, 'I am going to be a jockey.'

"I remember saddling up a pony and trying to stay on top with a jockey saddle. I kept practicing and practicing until I could stay on, and it all took off from there. It was all in my backyard, and it was easy to fall right into it. I love horses and always felt like I had a way with them. It was so natural, it never felt like work for me."

That family connection provided Smith with the opportunity to compete in races at an early age. With it, came a unique form of pressure that he feels has served him well throughout the years.

"Back then, a lot of times I rode for my grandfather," he said. "I didn't want to lose, especially for him. I don't think I had any less pressure at the age of 13 riding for my grandfather than I do riding in some of these big races I get to ride in now. It really helped me learn how to handle that kind of pressure because I certainly didn't want to lose my grandfather's farm."

Far from losing the family farm, Smith eventually left New Mexico and has made a life out of his love for horses. He has won more than 5,100 races and has laid claim to over $250 million in earnings.

Ironically, for all of the talented horses Smith has partnered with, he won the most famous race in America on a long shot. Giacomo was dismissed by the public in the 2005 Kentucky Derby, but not by his jockey.

"All of my family and friends made good money that day because I really liked him," Smith said. "I have ridden long shots in the Derby, and sometimes you know you don't much of a shot but you give it your best go. But with him, I could not for the life of me figure out why he was 50-1.

"He wasn't supposed to be the favorite, but I thought he should have been one of the horses people looked at. No one was, and I couldn't figure it out. I knew it was going to be a real fast pace, and I thought the race could really set up for me. It happened just the way I pictured it, and I just followed the picture in my mind."

Giacomo also provided a bit of redemption for Smith, who was aboard the colt's sire, Holy Bull, in the 1994 Derby. Holy Bull was the 2-1 favorite but finished 12th after he was bumped coming out of the starting gate.

A few years after Giacomo's Derby score, all of his connections would team up again to campaign one of the sport's biggest stars. Zenyatta became the first, and thus far only, female horse to take the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic during a storied career that saw her win 19 of 20 starts.

By the time the big mare--who was known for her distinctive dancing strut before and after her races-- retired with more than $7.3 million in earnings, she had left a permanent mark on her connections, her fans, and the sport as a whole.

"I have never found words that describe her," said Smith. "All of the ones you normally use don't do her justice. She was bigger than life. She did everything with such grace and ease. I think she came into our sport when it really needed a super star. She was all that and more. She was just different. She demanded attention yet she had such class."

Zenyatta retired to Lane's End Farm in Kentucky after losing the 2010 Classic in a photo finish, and her connections, including Smith, still visit regularly. She will deliver her third foal later this spring, and her first foal, a 2-year-old colt named Cozmic One, is currently in training.

"He is going to have a lot of pressure on him before he ever starts, but that is part of being her offspring," said Smith. "It comes with the territory. If her foals are half of what she was, that is good enough for me. I hope I get the opportunity to ride him, I really do."

For all of his success, Smith hasn't forgotten his past. To this day, one of his favorite horses was a gelding he rode named Prairie Bayou. The game runner finished second in the 1993 Derby and came back to win the Preakness. Tragically, he broke down in the Belmont Stakes and had to be euthanized.

"I was very close to him, and he turned out to be a really nice horse," said Smith. "You don't hear much about him anymore, but he was a pretty incredible horse. He was also just a sweet heart. He loved to sleep in the sun when he was supposed to be out grazing, and you could lie on top of him and he wouldn't get up. He was such a cool horse. Just so kind."

This Saturday, Smith's home state will welcome him back for a trip down memory lane. It seems like a safe bet Zenyatta, Gicacomo, Prairie Bayou and all of the other horses who have been part of his career will be on his mind.

"This game has taken me all over the world, and I have been so blessed and done so many great things," said Smith. "At the tail end of my career, to get inducted into my home state's hall of fame is pretty special. You feel like you have come full circle, in a good way."