Q and A with Hall of Fame Jockey Mike Smith

Horse Racing Radar
Rich Bieglmeier
Rich Bieglmeier is a Staff writer for Horse Racing Radar
Thursday, April 22, 2021
Our guest on this week's The Player's Edge, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, shares lots of details of his life with our HRR readers ahead of the podcast.

HRR: You started riding when you were eight years old, where there any horses your rode when you were that young that went on to win big races?

Mike Smith: They went on to win races. I wouldn't say any that anybody would know about at that age. They weren't really that high-quality of horses that could compete in races that would have been on TV, back then especially. That's back in the 70's and 80s. It would be hard to say that any of them went on to do something extremely special, but several went on to win races, break their maidens at several different racetracks and do OK.

HRR: When you first started racing, who did you consider to be your biggest competition?

Mike Smith: Anybody with a better horse than me was my biggest competition. They were certainly the horse to beat. Whoever may have been on them, it doesn't really matter.

HRR: Who would you say is your all-time favorite jockey?

Mike Smith: I've got so many that I was very blessed to help me out with my career. My first real mentor that I spent a whole lot of time with and that I learned a whole lot from on and off the racetrack was Pat Day. As far as riding, I could name 10 other guys that I learned from who are very influential in my riding.

HRR: Do you think anybody will get to Russell Baze's US record for wins?

Mike Smith: I wouldn't say never. If somebody starts young enough and at a place they can dominate for the amount of years Russell did, all records are meant to broken at some point. You know, Russell was blessed to dominate Northern California for such a long time without any serious injuries. It's certainly going to be hard to break but I would never say impossible. If he got there, why can't somebody get one over? Someday, someone will break SECRETARIAT's record at some point. It's amazing how long SECRETARIAT's record has lasted and it's going to be amazing how long Russell's last.

HRR: You had an [whip count] incident in the Saudi Cup, it's kind of new to American racing, how do feel the whip rules affect jockeys in terms of racing?

Mike Smith: Depending on what the rules are; the hard thing is they are different everywhere. It becomes very complicated while you are in the heat of battle to have to count. Here in California, you can only use it a certain way. It is not the proper way to use the riding crop, which makes it difficult as well.

We are having a lot of issues with it. The fines and penalties are extremely harsh, much harsher than any other penalties in racing. It's something we are having a rough time with. Should there be penalties, are we willing to change to get into modern times? Yeah, I think we've bent over backwards. They are going from one extreme to the other. The riding crop is a tool needed to ride a horse period, not just in a race.

Whether you are on an equestrian horse or trotting or whatever it may be, it goes hand in hand. It's a tool that need to be there for a lot of reasons, especially safety being the most important. We keep telling people they are bred to run; they love to run. We'll they love to run when they want to. My dog like to pay attention me and stand by my side when it wants to, but when it sees as squirrel and decides to take off, If I don't have a leash on it, he's gone.

Right now in racing, Tampa Bay has the rule we've been trying to apply all along. You want to put a number of strikes? That's fine. We are fine with a number if you can use it properly. Let's us carry and use it underhanded as necessary; to reach back and even touch one to keep them focused or whatever it may be, but if you turn it up, then you have that certain number.

That's what Tampa is doing. I think it just working brilliantly over there. I watch the race the races there, it looks good, people feel comfortable with it, they feel safe, but for some reason, California being one of them, it doesn't seem like they want to listen to the people who are on the back and risking their lives.

HRR: You should have a lot of input, with your status you could reach out to a Senator because the federal government is considering some national rules.

Mike Smith: Great ideas, we've been doing it for three years straight, every week and no one listens.

HRR: It's not surprising from politicians.

Mike Smith: No one listens, the HRB doesn't listen, no one listens. I talk until I am blue in the face. Before you called, we were going over the [New] Jersey rule where they are not going to let them use it [riding crop] period. You can only use it underhanded for a safety reason only. You can't use it for encouragement or anything else.

The problem with the safety reason only is they think they are giving you a chance to use it if there is a dangerous situation. Well, I know the dangerous situation is about to come up two strides, three strides maybe even four before it happens.

You correct a horse before it does it. You can feel it, its body language will tell you by the way it does its ears. For you to visualize it, I might do something and you didn't even see anything happen because nothing happened. I prevented it from happening before it happened. The way it is written now, though, it literally has to happen before you can prevent it. Well, that doesn't make any sense. How can you prevent something that's already happened?

In other words, I can't straighten a horse out from ducking to the right until it ducks to the right. What's the use of doing it then? It's too late. But if I know, he'll let me know, he looks at something and I can feel it before he even does it. To the eye it looks like nothing.

So, what are they going to say? Now I get penalized. I get fined. I get suspended because I used it to get a horse's attention, to keep it going forward for safety reasons, but they can't see that. "I didn't see it going to the right, what are you talking about?"

HRR: On the track, do you find that wind is a factor in the stretch or at the start, or is not a factor?

Mike Smith: I think wind would be a factor in anything. from NASCAR to horseracing. The wind isn't going to affect just one person, it's going to affect the whole field. The guy who is drafting in between or right in behind might have a slight advantage at that point if you get a big enough wind gust. Or if your rider stands up higher than the rest of them all the way down the backstretch.

When they came out with aerodynamic silks, a lot df us didn't like them because they were kind of hard to put on and off. They were tight and we weren't used to the tight-fitting stuff back then. If I was an owner those would be my silks. The old-fashioned ones that had buttons they had those gaps in between. An air pocket gets in there and floats your silks up. Hey, it might cost you an inch, but isn't this a game of inches?

HRR: We just saw that with MONOMY GIRL and LETRUSKA. Are there any tracks where wind is a prevailing factor?

Mike Smith: Anytime you ride in Chicago, especially at Hawthorne in the wintertime. You get a lot of wind out there. I know at Aqueduct at times, because it's so wide open there by the airport, it can get pretty gusty there at times. Much more than say at Belmont. Belmont is more inland and it's not so wide open and you have the big grandstands, which kind of blocks all of it. At Aqueduct and Hawthorne, you would get some wind gusts that would move you sideways sometimes.

HRR: Is there a horse that you wish you could have ridden, past or present that you didn't ride?  If you had a chance to ride any horse, which one would it be?

Mike Smith: It wouldn't be just one. The list would go on and start with SECRETARIAT, of course. Who wouldn't want to ride SECRETARIAT if you were a jockey? Who wouldn't want to own him if you were an owner or train him if you were a trainer? SPECTACULAR BID, they were all great. MAN O WAR! I would have loved to ride him one time, the list goes on.

I was a big, big fan of EASY GOER coming up because of Pat Day. I was very close with him at the time when he was riding EASY GOER. I used to hang out with him quite a bit and be over at the house all the time. I would take him to the airport just about every time he flew to go riding. I'd would get to know what was on his mind and pick his brain and stuff like that. That was kind of cool horse that's half-way modern in time and people would know who he was. The list goes on, I would have loved to have been on AMERICAN PHAROAH, there is so many of them.

HRR: Is there horse that you rode that was difficult but rewarding.

Mike Smith: MCKINZIE wasn't an easy horse to ride, extremely talented. He was a horse that I think we only saw glimpses, although he had a wonderful racing career, every now and then he'd run a race and you would think, "wow what kind of talent he really had." He always had back end problems. When he was young, he hurt his back end and came back from it. That always kind of bothered him here and there.  When you would catch him on the right day, oh man, he was almost unbeatable.

He was very quirky. He would let you know he didn't some like things at certain times. If you weren't paying attention to him and trying to get him out of those situations where he was uncomfortable, then he wasn't going to run.

I would love to go on and on, but honestly most of the horses, when they're right, that's why they're good. They don't make mistakes. They're above average on all levels on everything that they do. You don't get too many really good ones that do too many bad things. They wouldn't have gotten to where they were if they did.

HRR: How is riding in the Derby different than any other race?

Mike Smith: Well, everything about it.  It's a horse race, we all have to go around, turn left and get to the wire first. So, I mean that part is just like any other race. But just the feeling, the magnitude of the race and how important it is. The excitement in the air and the electricity; the amount of pressure that everyone is on and puts you on because you get one shot at it and one shot only. It's not like any other race where a horse can just run back in this race or run back in another stakes, you only get to run one time in the Kentucky Derby.

That's what makes it stand out, right? You get one chance, one chance only. You might get to ride the race another year, but the horse can't run it another year. That's it. That right there just puts it into a whole different level. And then you go into mile and quarter with 20 horses most of the time nowadays.

It's not a race that you ride like you would a normal mile and a quarter race where you leave there, try to get happy and comfortable. No one's in a hurry to go anywhere. You leave there and, I'm telling you, the first hundred yards, you're riding just as hard as anybody riding a quarter race going 440 yards. It's a race to the wire just to get position. After that, the race will get some sort of rhythm where you'll slow down and try to be able to finish with something. But anywhere from the first 50 to 100, maybe up to 200-300 yards, it's a race, everyone just takes off trying to get position. Position is very important in that race.

HRR: Speaking of position, you're on MIDNIGHT BOURBON, what are you hoping for in terms of draw and the race setup?

Mike Smith: A draw just outside the speed probably. You could just start riding in that second little flight behind the speed, which he's capable of. He's got a high cruising speed himself and go from there.

Saying that, I'm going to leave there, and I don't take away anything that comes easy to me, especially in a race like that. If he was to find himself in front, that would be fine with me as long as he was there in a manner that I thought he was capable of doing it and was comfortable enough that I could get the distance.

From the looks of things, there should be some pace in there. He's naturally quick himself. You know, you would like that. It's either that or you want to come from way back. Look, you can come from anywhere and win the race, and it's shown that anyone has.

The ideal thing is, when you have a horse with natural high cruising speed, you can get in really good spot immediately and that really helps. That's what I have that I like about MIDNIGHT BOURBON. He's quick enough to put me in a good spot early on in the race and then we just got to see if he's good enough after that.

HRR: It's not a factor this year, certainly wasn't a factor last year, but when the fans are packed in again at 170,000, when you make that turn, that noise level has to go way up. How does that affect the horses as they make that turn?

Mike Smith: A lot of them don't want to go first. At that point they're getting tired, and they've never heard a crowd like that. I'm sure it does play a big factor with a lot of them. Again, they're starting to tire, they hear that roar just coming straight at them. Very few of them want to be the one that leads them on through there.

Horses are herd animals, anyway.  Even if it was a quiet afternoon and you had ten of turned loose in a big pen, if it was the same ten, the one who leads them around there that first day is probably the one that stays the leader most of the time. It's not like they trade places a whole lot.

I don't mean the ones laying third or fourth or fifth can't outrun the other, it's just their demeanor. You'll have some who'll run right through it, they'll run through a wall if you point them in that direction. And then you'll have some that don't want to and it does affect them.

HRR: I can imagine it would probably freak out most people, too. I don't want to retire you, but we got a lot of questions about what you plan on doing when you're done racing. So, before we get to that, do you plan on racing until 6,000 wins? Beyond? Is there a number that you have in mind?

Mike Smith: I don't have a number. As long as I feel that I'm capable and at the top, not even capable, I shouldn't say that. If I don't feel like I'm at that level of competition, if I feel it's diminishing, or I can't contribute or help in any way, then it's time to call it a career.

The great thing about a rider's career is that if you stay healthy, you stay in great shape; you stay strong; you stay limber and you're taking care of yourself, the horse really does the running. The mind is very important in our game, so experience really helps. If you've been there before, it certainly helps because you know what it takes to win. There's nothing like it.

If you stay in good enough shape, it's not like your NFL or NBA players who are using their whole body the whole time. I'm using the horse's body most of the time, although it's strenuous on ours as well, but if you stay in good enough shape and you're taking care of yourself and you've done the right things and you can stay strong enough, then you can do this well into your 50s. It's been proven before and it's being proven now. Some guys can do it even in the NFL. Look at Tom Brady, he just won his 7th Super Bowl, the guy's turning 44 years old this year. That's like being 64 for a rider, probably, maybe even older.

HRR: How do you envision your final ride? Do you see yourself riding across the Kentucky Derby, arms raised in a V? When it does come to a close, how would you like for that to be?

Mike Smith: Well, I'd certainly like to win. Some people pick a race and they say "this is going to be my final race." I don't know if that's the way I'm going to go out or not. I don't know. I might, depending on circumstances, heck, I might just win the triple crown again and say "Thank you. I appreciate it, man, this is my last dance." And that was it, and just walk on out.

HRR: Well, there will be a lot of people listening that hope you don't do it this year, then.

Mike Smith: You know, I don't plan on it. I feel really well. I mean, that's one thing in my career. I've taken care of myself and I've worked out since I was in my early, early 20's. I started hitting the gym at about 23, 24 years old. Since that time, I've made it a way of life and I go at least five times a week every week since I was in my early 20's. I'm in really good shape. I feel wonderful.

I've been blessed that other than 1998 when I had that rough year breaking my shoulder and my back, I've been very fortunate to have gotten over that and haven't been injured since, other than just little minor things. So, if the good Lord's willing, that continues. I'm every bit as fit and strong as I was in my 30's. I don't plan on retiring. I'd love to go another few more years. We'll see where it takes me.

HRR: I think with the success you're having, that won't be a problem. Two more questions. Your grandmother, Rosita Vallejos instilled faith in you as a young boy, praying with you before going to bed. You've said faith means everything to you. To what degree do you feel your faith played into your success?

Mike Smith: Everything. I wouldn't be here without it. It's so easy to, as you well know, for any athlete, it's so easy to fall into the wrong things. You're young and there's no one there that's really guiding you and money comes into your hands. The world is yours. It can lead you a lot of different places. A lot of great places and a lot of really bad places in life.

The only time I've ever not done well mentally and physically, in my career and in my life, is when I've fallen off that track is when I haven't looked to God, and all of a sudden thought I could do this on my own and not need anybody. And that don't last at all. You'll burn so fast, it's unbelievable.

You want longevity in life, you know where it comes from and you know when you're back doing the right thing when things are going right, you're living life right. There's just nothing like it because success isn't everything. You could be doing good and be miserable. You've got to be happy, and you've got to be at peace in life to continue on, to have longevity, otherwise it ain't gonna last.

HRR: Yeah, I agree wholeheartedly with you. I can remember as a little boy... I read you mentioned some of your first memories are praying. I'm the same way.

Mike Smith: I don't stop, you know. You know you read that in the Bible, pray continuously. I literally talk to God almost in everything that I do. As soon as this interview's over, I'll start talking to him. I'll say what could I have done better, what could I have said better. Don't say this, don't say that. Try to actually look towards him sometimes before I even answer something. It's funny how the whole answer would've been totally different if I had just spoke out of my head instead of out of my heart, talking to him first. The answers are usually like night and day. You'd always like the ones that I took the time to talk to him first, believe me.

HRR: I don't doubt it.

Mike Smith: It's always a better answer, you know.

HRR: Especially if I'm left to my devices, to answer the questions the way I would like to sometimes.

Mike Smith: I know some wonderful people in this world, but if they'd just take the time to ask God just real quick before you answer that, man they would've been a whole lot better off. I love that and I've seen that.

That's another thing, going back to what you were telling me. Pat [Day] was a man of faith, very strong. It really went with me at a young age, and it really helped me a lot. It was great to see him. And we all know what he went through. You knew him before. I didn't really know him before; I just knew him just as he had found God.

People say, "when did you find God?" I was born with Him. We all were, but some people tend to get off and I never did. When I did, it would only be for little quick moments in my life, and I would get back on. Good thing I had the right people around me all the time, otherwise, as you well know it could happen to anybody. You just go off the wrong path and you know, you're doing drugs, you're doing this, you know you ain't doing no good no more.

HRR: And when you ain't doing no good no more tends to be when no good things happen for you, that's for sure.

Mike Smith: Yeah, you're doing it to yourself. Where do you go from there? You're certainly not going to live very long. You know, you're not treating other people right. It's the main thing in life.

HRR: It'll come back to you for sure. One last question. You've reached the pinnacle of your profession, there's just no question about that. You're amongst the best ever, if not the best ever. What things do you do that you feel others in any profession could learn from you or emulate to help them achieve their professional goals?

Mike Smith: Hmm. You know, I doubt myself every day. Look, in horseracing, if you win 20% of the time, you're doing really well. I doubt myself 80% of the time. I never thought I'd made it. I still don't think I've made it, to be honest with you.

Look, I could it here and have a glass of wine with you and we could look back at my career and I can be proud and say "wow, that's great." But as soon as I get into competition and I lose again, that's out the window. How do I win?  How do I get back there again? What is it going to take to get back there again?

It's literally doing all the little things that you did to start with to get to where you're at that you have to do all over again. Remember the things that you did to get there, and just do those same little things all over again. It's not one big thing, it's all the little things that add up to that big moment, and that's all it is.

Get back on track. Start looking up to him again, start doing the right thing, be good, be kind, work hard, concentrate, focus, and do all the things that it took to get there to get back there. People forget all those things. They forget the little things. That would be my advice. Do the little things. Keep doing them. If you keep doing all the little things that it took you to get there, you'll continue to do well.

HRR: I agree with you. Just unfortunately, I'm not a fan of the little things. I'm a big picture guy, so details are always difficult for me.

Mike Smith: Yeah, and you know it's easy to get into that. It's always the big things that you want. Why don't that guy ride let me ride anymore... if he'd just put me on that horse. Well, you know what it took for you to get to that guy to start with? To get on that kind of horse? It's all those, and you forgot to do those, you don't do none of those anymore. You don't act right, you're not doing right, and you just expect it to come and that's not going to happen.

HRR: Absolutely, you need to work for it. We wholeheartedly agree. That's it for the questions. We really appreciate your time, Mike, for joining us today.


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