Mike Smith goes bareback

Smith's sport has seen many changes in the way athletes train in the past 10 years. Martin Schoeller for ESPN The Magazine

Why did you decide to pose for the Body Issue?

MS: People always think we are little skinny dudes, like little girls, and I want to show that jockeys are in great shape. I'm proud to say I'm a rider. We are very fit, from female to male. People used to argue that jockeys were the fittest athletes pound-for-pound. That idea has kind of gone away, but I take pride in fitness and staying in good shape and being healthy so I can perform at the highest level. I bet I'm a little older than most of the athletes in this issue. I'm 46, so I want to prove that I can still be in great shape and compete at the highest level. I take pride in that.

What do you like about your body?
MS: I love my whole body overall. My legs are extremely strong because when you ride, you are squatting the whole time; you aren't sitting in the saddle. If you tried to sit on the saddle with the horse going that fast, you'd probably bounce right off. So you sit as close as possible without sitting ... Your butt is probably an inch off the saddle. The only time you sit on the horse is before the race. Once it starts, you try to get as aerodynamic as possible without sitting. It takes a lot of leg strength. Try to sit in a squatting position for a few minutes straight; now try doing that for 30-plus years.

Riding requires everything from brute strength to finesse. The lightest touch can produce a huge response. Sometimes you just need a touch to say, "Hey, I'm here." But then in a nanosecond you are thrust into a dangerous situation where you need to be incredibly strong. In a field with 14 1,200-pound horses going 40 mph, if someone makes a wrong move, that causes a chain reaction. We have no safety belts, there are no roll bars, and if you hit the ground, you are going to get run over. In a split second, you need to maneuver and use all of your power. You go from using nothing at all to everything you've got in an instant. It's a lot more than what it seems like on TV. To people watching at home, it looks like we are just up there going around in a circle.

What challenges do you face with your body?
MS: At my age, maintaining the weight. I have to keep it regulated so I don't get over 115 pounds, and as everyone knows, when you get older, it gets harder to keep weight off. And I enjoy eating. I eat what I want, but I eat in moderation. I hate to deprive myself of anything. Plus, riding is a hell of a workout. I have personal trainers. I do a lot of cardio, a lot of reps with light weights, a lot of circuit training. I used to hike up a very steep mountain in California several days a week for an hour and a half. Sometimes I'd strap weight to my body with a weighted vest. It's really simple but actually really difficult. The basics are tough sometimes.

And, of course, injuries. When you are around horses, you are bound to get hurt. I've broken both shoulders. I broke my back really bad, collarbones, foot a few times, an arm ... Name it and I probably broke it. But what's great about being in this kind of shape and in such good health at this weight is that when you break something, you have amazing recovery time. When I broke my back, I was in a full body cast. It was supposed to be a year before I fully recovered, and I was back riding in six or seven months. Your muscles become resilient when you are in really good shape. I was centimeters from being paralyzed for life, and I was fortunate to be in the shape I was in.

Describe what it's like trying to combat the stigma that jockeys just try to cut weight?
MS: You hardly see that anymore. Back in the day, we just didn't have the know-how or technology or trainers or nutritionists. Nowadays, you don't see people binging. I think jockeys and wrestlers have the worst reps on that type of stuff. But you've seen the change in the sport in the past 10 years, and it just keeps getting better and better. I think, back in the day, those guys didn't realize how strong they could be when they do it the healthy way and how much better they'd feel and how much quicker you think. There are so many split seconds in this sport, and if you are healthier, you think better, you react quicker, you are stronger. It's amazing what five more pounds of strength can do.

Did you ever think of going down the wrong path?
MS: I think in the very beginning, but luckily for me, I saw what it did. I saw what it could do to you if you didn't take care of your body. I remember looking around and seeing how some jockeys were aging themselves so quickly. Their bones were so brittle; they got hurt more easily; they were forced into retirement more quickly; their bodies were a mess. I chose not to go down that road. When I retire, I want to be wealthy and healthy. I want to be able to enjoy the work I've done and travel and feel good while doing it.

Have you ever felt self-conscious about your body?

MS: Not really. I'm in a business where you have to be light, so I liked where I was. When I was very young, I wanted to be a linebacker, but of course that wasn't going to happen. I tried football all the way into high school, and finally my coach told me that I had a bigger heart than my size: "You've got to give it up, buddy, because your body ain't going to grow." The truth is I was playing free safety, and I was getting killed.

What do you tell yourself when you feel like you can't train any further?
MS: The days I feel like I can't train, believe it or not, I train harder. That's who I am. I don't stop. It upsets me if I don't feel like I've got the edge over somebody. I don't like that feeling. It eats at me. When I believe I've got an edge, it's a big help, and I think that applies to anyone in any sport. But if I get to the gym and I don't feel like training, I feel guilty as heck. I got myself to where I got myself by being the way I am. If I don't give 110 percent and I fail, then I've let everyone down—the people I'm riding for, my fans and especially myself. I don't like letting anyone down, so that makes me push harder.

What's something about your body that would surprise us?
MS: For my size, 115 pounds, I bench 245 pounds pretty easily. You'd be pretty amazed. It freaks out the big guys at the gym. I've gone pound-for-pound with a few of the big guys. That's always fun.

Have you ever felt betrayed or disappointed in your body?

MS: Coming off of injuries, when you are as impatient as I am, you get frustrated because you want to pick up where you left off. When I broke my back in 1998, I was very grateful I didn't get paralyzed, but I immediately wanted to get back to where I was. I was leading the country at the time, and I wanted to get back to that level, so those first few months were a pretty frustrating time in my life.

What was your best athletic moment -- a time when everything clicked and you felt completely in tune with your body?
MS: I've been so blessed to win many great races, but the two that stand out are the Kentucky Derby in 2005 with Giacomo and the $15 million Breeders' Cup Classic in 2009 with Zenyatta. With Giacomo, there were 20 horses in the race, and we came from 18th place, got into perfect rhythm and maintained it. I used all my strength to push, stay balanced, stay in rhythm -- especially that last quarter-mile. To stay in perfect balance and rhythm is extremely important, and I knew after that race that all my weight training really helped. It's about going with the horse on every stride, being able to keep your body still and push as hard as you can, not leaving your legs waddling, just locking yourself down and staying in perfect rhythm. When you can sit so locked it helps the horse maintain their stride.

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