ARCADIA, Calif. -- With his commonplace name and small stature, 42-year-old Mike Smith might sound like a pretty forgettable guy.
Perhaps if you had led off a winning $1 superfecta bet with the 2005 Kentucky Derby-winning jockey -- which would have earned you a cool $864,253.50 -- you might remember him.
In actuality, with comprehensive career success that spans over two decades, Smith is a well-known and well-respected journeyman in the thoroughbred racing world. His 50-1 long-shot victory atop Giacomo in 2005 certainly solidified his place in history, but it should be noted that he won an ESPY as the year's top jockey way back in 1993, and was inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in 2003.
But Smith is still adding to his Wikipedia page. This weekend, at the 25th running of the Breeders' Cup World Championships, he has the chance to make another significant addendum. Smith will ride Zenyatta, an undefeated 4-year-old filly, in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (Friday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). If the 3-5 morning-line favorite stays as perfect as oddsmakers think she will, Smith has a real shot at riding the Eclipse Horse of the Year recipient right onto his résumé.
Our Mary Buckheit caught up with Smith in the hours before the big event at Santa Anita Park.
ESPN: With the new format, you have your work cut out for you on Friday. Three races, one atop Zenyatta -- the potential Horse of the Year. How do you feel?
Mike Smith: I feel great right now, to tell you the truth. There's so much buzz here; there's so much excitement going on, and if somebody tells you that they're not nervous, they're lying! Everybody's a little nervous, but now it's about how to use that energy.
Forget about you, how's the little lady?
The so-called little lady is just fine; she's pretty big, though.
It's all relative, Mike; you're 5'4". Do you like shouldering these huge expectations that come with riding the morning-line favorite?
I like coming in any way I can take it. Whether it's being a favorite and winning it or being an underdog and winning it, doesn't matter to me, I like it any way I can take it.
Tell me about the first time you'll see Zenyatta on Friday. What do you do?
The day of the race, the first time I'll see the horse is in the paddock, and I'll just kind of look at her, see how she's doing, see how she's handling it all. There's a lot to handle at these big races. I watch how she's taking the whole situation in. I see if she feels nervous or if she's pretty calm, cool and collected. If she's a little nervous then I know I shouldn't probably do too much with her to make her any more nervous. If she's laid-back, I'll warm her up good till I feel like she's feeling good.
Do you eat anything the morning of a race?
Yeah, I'll try to. I'll get up and have a little breakfast, usually a little oatmeal or something like that. I won't have much more than that, though!
You eat oats, too. That's some serious jockey-to-horse synergy.
That's just about all I can eat on race day. We're fortunate that these horses can carry a lot of weight.
A lot of weight? Mike, you're 114 pounds. What's the fastest way to lose weight in a hurry?
Aha, it's real simple -- don't eat. Nah, we hit the sauna and we lose some in there, and a lot of us run, you can run with plastics on and lose a few [pounds] pretty quickly that way if you have to. I try to do it naturally and prepare a day or two ahead of time so I can keep it relaxed when it gets close; that's just my style.
Horses have different styles and personalities, too. How would you describe Zenyatta's?
In the morning, around the barn, she's pretty cool and calm. She's kind of lovey-dovey, she'll let you actually feed her carrots and play with her, but as soon as the saddle goes on her, her game face is on; the game is on and you've gotta leave her alone. She struts her stuff, man, once she's suited up. She's a little aggressive and she'll dance a little bit and she'll pull up and she stands real tall; she's a very, very tall horse and she'll stand way up tall and just kind of tower over everybody. It's kind of her way of intimidating other horses, it seems like. It's very exciting to watch, to tell you the truth.
What do you do in these hours before a big race?
I work out and I rest. I really take some time to focus. I don't go out at all in the nights before a race. I stay in and do all my homework, and then when I'm done with that I just kind of let it all go, to tell you the truth, because at some point, you've done all that you can do and you just have to wait for the day to come.
What goes into a jockey's homework?
Well, we're handicapping. Once the posts are drawn, now you go over the race and you see where everybody's at. You visualize it. You go over the race and you look at every scenario that might come up as far as who is the speed, who's not the speed, who's gonna be leading here, who is going to be late there, who do you think your horse needs to follow, who do you think the horse is not to follow? There's just so many little things you can try to anticipate. You just kind of look at it all and how it might play out and you consider it and then you just let go of it, you know? Because, for all that you do ahead of time, what happens out there is still usually something different than you even thought of. You let it go because you also need to have an open mind. As it gets close to the race, I just rest and work out. Some family will come in and I'll visit a little bit and try to enjoy myself, and that's about it. I try to get some rest. It's funny, after the three races on Friday, when I get off Zenyatta, I'll have that whole night to do my homework again and get ready for Tiago in the Classic on Saturday, so I'll just have to try and get some sleep.
It must be tough to fall asleep when you know thousands of eyes and dollars are riding on you?
Yeah, well no. I mean, it's not that hard when you have Ambien [laughing]. My secret is time-release Ambien, but it's not too tough anymore. I've been at this for 26 years, so you kind of learn.
I think it's pretty interesting that jockeys share a locker room at these things. You'd never put, say, the Dodgers and the Phillies in the same locker room before a huge game. Is it weird being in there with your competition?
Yeah, it's certainly the only sport that we go out and compete against each other and then walk back into the same locker room. It can definitely be a little tedious at times. But I mean, everybody -- well, it is what it is. Everybody has their own style, and it's not like somebody's in there coming up with a whole new game plan, or strategy or something. When you get to this level on this caliber of horses, everybody knows what they're going out to do. But still, it makes it interesting to all be all in the same space as each other.
How about another quick baseball analogy? Some sluggers will say they knew it was a home run the second the ball hit the bat. When is that moment for a jockey en route to a win, or is horse racing such that you just never know?
Well, if everybody is going pretty quick early, and I am behind a little bit, I'm just thinking about keeping my cool, because you know that they're probably going to come back to you, and you certainly don't want to go chasing a hot pace. But then, if they're going a little slow early you're just thinking about the best position to be in so that when they do quicken you can quicken with them. So I guess there's that time in the beginning where you don't know, you're just feeling it out; anything can happen. And then someone will pull the trigger. You watch the pace and wait, and it's really when you pull your trigger, when you ask your horse to really run, their response is the closest thing we have to the ball and the bat.
Yeah, there have definitely been times when I've called on a horse, and I'm telling you, they accelerate, man. And I mean, they drop it and you're catching everybody so quick and at that moment you're up there like, "Wow." When you call on your horse and they drop and they give it to you it's just a really cool feeling, and I'm sure it's actually the same type of feeling a baseball player has when they connect on a pitch. That's it, it's a connection -- whack, they hit it and they know it's gone. Well, when you call on a horse and they drop down and give it to you and you're getting through to them like you want to, that's it. That's the moment you know. When that happens, when you get that kind of "Wow" response, you can just tell. You pretty much know that you've got 'em. I mean, there's always -- barring a mishap -- there's times you just know you've got them.
You talk about a mishap; are the dangers of the sport something that you're cognizant of?
No. I mean, there's always that element of danger in what we do, but I don't have time to think of that. When you're at the controls, it doesn't feel as dangerous. If somebody is flying an airplane and you're stuck sitting in the back seat and have no control, that's pretty scary. But when you have control, for some odd reason, the fear or the element of danger doesn't seem as present. It's not as scary. If something happens, it happens, and when it does it's so fast I don't even have time to think about it.
Some athletes are pretty particular about their jersey number or their lucky socks. Any secrets in your silks?
Nah, I'm pretty religious, I believe in God, so superstition stays out of my ritual. I pray. I just pray. And in praying I'm not praying for me to win; I'm praying for the opportunity to perform at my best and to get the chance to succeed. That's all we can ask for. But I do have a favorite silk; I'd say Mr. and Mrs. Moss's, which are [the] turquoise and pink I wore when I rode Giacomo, the horse that I won the Kentucky Derby on. Those are the colors I wear when I ride Tiago and Zenyatta, too. Those would have to be my favorites.
What's the biggest perk of being a big-time jockey?
Ha, I don't know you, mean the benefit? Well, your waistline stays small.
Now you've got to spill it: What size pants do you wear, day-to-day?
I'm a 26 waist. Twenty-six waist, 31 inseam; something like that.
All right, aside from your perfect figure, if you had to stop racing horses tomorrow, what would you miss most?
There's nothing like the feeling of getting as one with a horse. I mean really connecting with your horse and having it perform for you to its best ability. That feeling when you hit the wire together and go across and hear the crowd scream -- I mean, it's an incredible feeling. It's just incredible. And there's that initial wave of excitement, but then for me it's just a sigh of relief, and you're there with everybody around you and it's so humbling. That's what I would miss.
You're 42 years old. What would you be doing if you weren't a jockey?
You know, I can't even fathom that. I can't even imagine my life as anything else. It's just what I've always wanted. I think about it all and I know I've been so blessed, but I feel like there's still so much more to do. I just love competing. There are moments when I've stopped and thought about all that's happened in my career -- I started in 1982 -- and wow, I feel just proud of myself, actually, you know? But I really believed from a young age that I could do this. I believed that I would accomplish some of the things that I have. And each time I do, it's like, "Man, it can't get any better than this." And it does, and I'm so grateful for every opportunity that comes. I just love this. I'm not done yet. I knew from when I was a kid. Yeah, I was too small for football, but I have always just been infatuated with horses. This is it for me. I can't imagine my life any other way.
Mary Buckheit started as an ESPN college intern in 2000. She signed on full-time in 2002, and became a regular ESPN.com contributor and Page 2 columnist in 2006. Mary lives in San Diego, where she covers the California sports scene and anything else she can dig up under the sun. Check out her full archive here.