ESPN Horse Racing

The return of Mike Smith
By Kenny Rice
Special to

"It's amazing what a good horse will do for you. It'll make you famous," Mike Smith takes a pause and then laughs. It is a strong from-the-gut-up-through-the-heart display of happiness. He's referring to his Kentucky Derby and Preakness mount, Proud Citizen, the Lexington Stakes winner who finished second and third respectively in the first two jewels of this year's Triple Crown.

War Emblem
Mike Smith and Proud Emblem (left) after finishing third to War Emblem and Victor Espinoza in the May 18 Preakness
Smith used to laugh that way all the time. It was easy to do during his glory days, a time that featured a run of eight Breeders' Cup wins from 1992-1997 and two consecutive Eclipse Awards as the nation's best jockey in 1993 and 1994. Not that long ago certainly, but enough time has passed that Smith has often been referred to in the past tense.

He never quit and never stopped flashing what seems to be a constant smile. But Smith had missed a couple of years of consistently riding the big horses in the big races and for a world-class jockey that's an absence that can quickly evolve into being forgotten.

No matter the track, no matter the race, some sort of ambulance always follows the competitors around track in case of an emergency. It's right there in plain sight for any spectator to see. But unfortunately for Smith, he actually viewed the interiors of ambulances at two different tracks with a five-month span in 1998.

In March of that year, he suffered a broken shoulder and collarbone in a spill at Gulfstream Park. Smith was only out of action for three months and came back strong that August to win both the Haskell and the Travers aboard Coronado's Quest. But Just days after that Travers victory in Saratoga, Smith was on a horse in a turf race and was squeezed at the hedge heading into the first turn when it happened. "It's so unbelievably quick, you just react as best you can," he remembers. His mount went down and Smith lay motionless, looking at the grass around him and hearing faint voices of the medics as they approached.

Smith had broken his back in two places, crushing the T-12 vertebra is in the middle of the spine and the L-3 is the lower region of the back, putting him in a neck- to-waist body cast for six weeks.

"I had doubts -- I mean I had a broken back," he recalls calmly, almost matter-of-factly. "But it didn't last long and I knew I would ride and I would have to work hard -- that's what I thought during that whole time I was in that thing, 'Just get back to work.'"

Work is that four-letter word that can be defined many different ways. Pushing a lawn mower is work. Even pushing letters through a stamp machine could be considered a chore. But most humans would agree that what Smith went through to get back in the saddle is eons beyond the standard definition of work.

"I was out of that cast and going to therapy for an hour and a half every afternoon. Then after that rehab, I'd go to the gym and work out for another three, four hours every single day. I just couldn't stop. It was my job, so I could get back to doing my job."

Of course he had to do that. Riding was the only job Smith knew or wanted to know. His father had been a rider and his uncle a trainer. Mike started riding races near his Roswell, New Mexico home when he was just 11 years old, and by the ripe old age of 16 he had his jockey's license. Smith briefly attended the same high school as Jerry Bailey in El Paso, Texas. and by 17, he had already been in the winner's circle aboard a horse named Forever Man at Santa Fe.

The memories of the excitement and the camaraderie of his youth flooded Smith's mind during his rehab, helping him do those extra bench presses and leg lifts day after day. And then what was supposed to be at least a nine-month rehabilitation effort diminished to only five and a half months. To say Smith was eager to get back to the races is a massive understatement. "I didn't want trainers to skip over me. I had to show up to show them and everybody I was ready again."

But Smith wasn't ready. His doctor had warned it would be difficult, if not impossible, to ride on a daily basis with his usual fervor for an extended period of time. "The doc was 1,000 percent right. I should've waited four months longer. I couldn't ride as many horses so I had to choose. My back and legs would be so sore at the end of the day. And some of the horses I picked didn't win, and when they didn't, people would say 'he's not the same rider, he's struggling to win the big ones now.' Coming back too soon actually set me back."

Smith hadn't been without moments before now; he rode the D.Wayne Lukas trained Cat Thief to a third-place finish in the 1999 Kentucky Derby. After failing to get a mount for last year's Derby, he moved his tack from New York to California. A new place, a renewed start for Smith, who at Hollywood Park last June became only the 40th jockey to ever record 4,000 career wins.

Smith is back; the quiet, slow return is over. A daily "head-to-toe, hour and half" workout has put Smith is in the best shape of his life. His youthful face belies his 36 years, as does his boyish enthusiasm for challenge.

The next major challenge that awaits Smith is, of course, the June 8 Belmont Stakes. Trainer Wayne Lukas is out to deny War Emblem the Triple Crown with Proud Citizen, and once again Smith will be in irons. "Wayne has given me a big chance again, I want to pull it off for him, the owners, me, everyone. We got hung out wide in the Preakness and should've been second. But War Emblem is good, everybody else knows that now, but I knew he was good before the Derby."

Smith stops and the laughter builds in his voice, perhaps appreciating the fact his comeback is near completion. "It's just good to be back in this position. I'm starting to make a little noise."