CHESTER - In most sports, induction into the Hall of Fame occurs after the culmination of an athlete's competitive career. But that's not the case in Thoroughbred racing, as exemplified by jockey Michael Earl Smith, who has registered many major accomplishments following his induction to the sport's Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York - which occurred nine years ago.
This Saturday, Smith will ride Hansen in the 43rd edition of the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby. Over the years, Smith has won stakes at 37 North American tracks. Mountaineer Casino Racetrack & Resort is one of them.
In 2009, Smith scored in a trio of stakes on the West Virginia Derby undercard. He won the Mountaineer Juvenile Fillies with For Royalty (a Todd Pletcher trainee). He won the Harvey Arneault Memorial with Ravalo. And he won the West Virginia Legislature Chairman's Cup with Piratesonthelake.
Mike Smith talks to the media following a race. (Coady Photography)
But the biggest prize eluded Smith that day. In the featured event, he had the mount on Mine That Bird, who had won the Kentucky Derby, and remains the only winner of any Triple Crown race to run at a West Virginia track.
What happened at Mountaineer remains bewildering. The speedster Big Drama, who went to the post as the 4-5 West Virginia Derby favorite, shot to a ten-length lead through the opening half-mile. Mine That Bird, the second choice at 9-10, closed the gap to about two lengths approaching the eighth-pole. But, nearing the wire, the 23-1 shot Soul Warrior drove past both of them to gain a half-length victory.
"It was total riding error - I'm not really happy with the way I rode this horse today," said Smith in the Mountaineer jockeys' room. Well, maybe, but the race unfolded in a very odd manner. And there's also the fact that in the nine starts Mine Stat Bird made following his Kentucky Derby victory, under the guidance of three different jockeys, he never won another race.
Smith, age 46, is originally from Roswell, New Mexico (famed as the town where a flying saucer allegedly crashed in 1947). He began guiding racehorses to the winner circle at southwestern bush tracks when he was 11, and five years later commenced his career at pari-mutuel ovals.
The past April, Smith registered his 5,000th career victory - he ranks 25th on the all-time list of North American riders in that department, and he has a career strike rate of 16.3%. On the all-time North American list of purse earnings by riders, Smith ranks ninth, with nearly $228.2 million.
He possesses a truly amazing resume: victories aboard Giacomo (a 50-1 shot) in the 2005 Kentucky Derby; and aboard Prairie Bayou in the 1993 Preakness Stakes; and with Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Belmont Stakes; and with Holy Bull and Coronado's Quest in two editions of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. There have been two Eclipse Awards. And the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for "extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship."
And there are the 15 triumphs by Smith in Breeders' Cup events, including the 1997 and 2011 editions of the Breeders' Cup Classic with Skip Away and Drosselmeyer. But the horse who will forever be linked to Smith is the racemare Zenyatta, who gained 19 consecutive wins, the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic among them.
Sixteen of Zenyatta's victories occurred with Smith in the irons. But the same was true for Zenyatta's only career defeat, which occurred in her final career start, the 2010 'Classic at Churchill Downs.
In that race, closing from 12th (and last) position as was her forte, Zenyatta had to be steadied on the far turn, she had to alter course turning into the stretch. Inside the eighth-pole, Zenyatta had her male opponent Blame squarely in her sights. But Blame, a very good horse, had just enough left to hold off Zenyatta by a head.
During the days following the 2009 West Virginia Derby, some handicappers criticized Smith for making his move with Mine That Bird too soon. In the days, weeks, months (years) following the 2010 'Classic, whole regiments of handicappers, racing fans, news commentators, and others with two cents to offer, criticized Smith for moving Zenyatta too late.
Hall of Fame status notwithstanding, a jockey is often regarded to be as good as the last 15-1 shot he booted home, or as bad as the last 6-5 shot that didn't win for him. An examination of Smith's career record reveals 428 graded stakes victories. Twenty-three of them have come in events worth a million dollars or more.
It says here that anyone who ventures to Mountaineer on Saturday to watch Mike Smith ride Hansen in the West Virginia Derby will be witnessing an effort by one of the top jockeys to ever practice the trade.