Fit to finish, Justify jockey Mike Smith relishes his first Triple Crown chance at age 52

It was last Friday morning, before 9 a.m. Pacific time and eight days from the race that could seal the first line in his obituary.

Mike Smith could not begin to calculate how many interviews he’d done in the two weeks since he’d ridden Justify to victory in the Preakness and set up a bid for the Triple Crown. The 52-year-old jockey is one of the great gentlemen in his sport, but this kind of spotlight — even though he’s craved the opportunity since he was a young man — is not exactly his bag.

“It’s kind of like taking a bath as a kid,” he said. “You don’t want to get in, but once you do, it’s not so bad. The hardest thing is having to turn people down. I just don’t have enough time.”

Tellingly, he called while sitting outside a gym near his Southern California home. Once he was done chatting, he’d bang out an hour of cardio work — elliptical bike, rowing machine, treadmill — and then another hour of interval work with his personal trainer.

Fitness is Smith’s daily creed. If he’s not on a horse or at the gym, he’s probably hiking up nearby Mount Wilson with its sweeping views of greater Los Angeles.

“I really admire the way he keeps himself fit,” said Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown in 1973.

Smith embraced this daily toil nearly 30 years ago, when he was a young rider breaking in on the kill-or-be-killed New York circuit. Many veteran jockeys eschewed such off-track work, but he modeled himself after the great Laffit Pincay Jr.

“The shape he was in,” Smith recalled, the awe still apparent in his voice. “He still does it to this day, in his 70s. If he took his shirt off, you’d be impressed.”

Smith has no doubt his daily regimen allows him to ride on the highest level well into his fourth decade in the physically grueling profession. He’s suffered the same catastrophic injuries that catch up with most longtime riders, including a broken back in 1998 that sidelined him for six months just when he was reaching his first career peak.

But he swears that he feels better now than he did in his 20s and 30s, partially because he’s riding one-fifth as many races as he did in his busiest years but mostly because he has never let up.

“I didn’t take up golf,” he said with a soft chuckle.

Because his body allows it and because trainer Bob Baffert trusts his judgment in the tensest moments, Smith gets to steer Justify, perhaps the most meteoric thoroughbred talent in recent history.

Smith won his first Triple Crown race in 1993 (the Preakness aboard Prairie Bayou) and added a Kentucky Derby win in 2005 and Belmont Stakes victories in 2010 and 2013. He has already been in the Hall of Fame for 15 years.

But this is his first chance at the Triple Crown, the elusive achievement that carries one out of mere racing fame and into the minds of casual sports fans.

Because it’s coming when he’s 52 — he became the second-oldest jockey ever to win the Derby behind Bill Shoemaker — Smith appreciates the magnitude that much more.

For so many years, he ranked among the winningest riders in the sport but was left to play bridesmaid in the Triple Crown races.

“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me,” he noted. “Because I was getting really good opportunities, and I should’ve won more. But it just didn’t come my way. These races are hard to win.”

Smith grew up on a New Mexico ranch and like Baffert, he fell in love with quarter horses before switching his allegiance to thoroughbreds.

He retains some memories of the great Triple Crown champions of the 1970s, but they were not responsible for kindling his passion. He cared more about the anonymous animals he could see with his own eyes and guide with his own hands.

“As kids, we all dream about catching the winning pass or making the winning shot,” he said. “I was always content, though. Wherever I was, I thought, ‘This is the best place I’ve ever been.’ ”

Smith was a high-volume rider during his initial burst of national success, surpassing 1,200 mounts every year from 1990 to 1997 and winning the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey in 1993 and 1994.

That phase of his career ended in 1998 with the brutal spill at Saratoga that left him with two fractured vertebrae.

“If I had a low point, that was probably it,” he said. “I kick myself for saying that with all the good fortune I’ve had. But I had never struggled like that, and I don’t think I handled it well.”

He rushed back to riding, and his winning percentage dipped.

He recalled having dinner with New York trainer Shug McGaughey and his wife during that time. Maybe he needed a change, McGaughey advised, adding, “You’re just one horse from doing it all over again.”

“That’s why I came to California,” Smith said of the move he made in 2000. “Just to start over.”

Two horses helped him make his mark on the West Coast — the filly and 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri and that year’s 2-year-old champion, Vindication. The latter carried significant implications for the future because he was Smith’s first major mount for Baffert.

A decade down the line, the relationship would prove fruitful for both. “We just fit,” Smith said. “I can make a decision out there, and he might be a little aggravated when I get back, but he’s going to give me room to make the decision again the next time.”

In part because Baffert has put him on super horses such as Justify and Arrogate, Smith has lightened his schedule as he moves into middle age.

His rides dropped to 335 in 2016 and 275 last year, but his purse totals are as robust as ever. He also credits his agent, Brad Pegram, with helping develop this high-efficiency approach.

Baffert tends to sound like he’s offering faint praise when he discusses Smith.

“He just keeps a good horse from getting beat,” the Hall of Fame trainer said of his Hall of Fame rider.

But if you’ve listened to Baffert enough, you know those words cut right to the heart of his philosophy. Given a blend of speed, power and poise like Justify, the best he and the jockey can do is not screw up a great thing.

At the Derby, for example, the whole game was to get Justify out of the gate quickly and cleanly so he would not have to deal with the churn of 19 other horses banging and kicking up mud.

Smith did just that and let the horse’s talent take it from there. “Keep it simple and it stays that way,” he likes to say.

At the Belmont, he said, the goal will be to get Justify — “by far the best 3-year-old I’ve ever ridden” — into a comfortable rhythm and let him run.

“If you ask him to do too much,” Smith said, “he’s not gonna finish.”

As for his own finish, it’s not imminent. He doesn’t see himself riding in 10 years, but he has no thought of going out on top if he wins the Triple Crown on Saturday.

“I think I have a few good ones left,” he said.

With that, he offered a friendly goodbye. The gym beckoned.

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