“It’s amazing what a good horse will do for you. It’ll make you famous.”
Mike Smith spoke these words long before his Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo. He said this year’s before Arrogate or Songbird ever graced a track and years before Zenyatta would ever dance. We think its fair to say that the 51-year-old jockey has had a spectacular career. ‘Big Money Mike’ walked on to his first track at age 16 in 1982, and within a decade, he placed second in the 1990 Belmont Stakes with Thirty Six Red. He was back on the Triple Crown trail three years later with a promising colt named Prairie Bayou, the morning line favorite for the 1993 Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky-bred gelding got his revenge on Sea Hero and stole the win in the Preakness Stakes that year only to dismount Smith in the Belmont and had to be euthanized due to a cannon-bone injury, giving Mike a heartbreaking introduction to Big Sandy and the oldest American classic.
‘Big Sandy’ is the nickname given to the largest oval track in the United States, known for her large sweeping turns. Belmont Park is also known as the “Test of the Champion,” the last race that will stand between the Triple Contender and history. There have only been thirty-six horses that have stood in that position since the conception of the three races that make up the Triple Crown and only twelve have gone on to earn the illustrious title. For North American racing, there is no higher echelon of the sport. To win the Triple Crown is to immortalize yourself in the history books and to have your name (either jockey, horse, trainer or owner) placed alongside the other greats in the Sport of Kings. American Pharaoh convincingly won the Triple Crown in 2015, ending the 37-year drought that plagued the game. And perhaps, we can hope, that Pharaoh has ushered in another Golden Age of Racing that saw the likes of Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew – three Triple Crown winners in less than a decade.
Secretariat, while giving the most impressive win in the history of the Triple Crown, he ended the Triple Crown drought of his generation by winning 30 lengths and setting the largest margin for victory in the Belmont Stakes. He was the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years since Citation in 1948, when Calumet was king of North American racing and Ben A. Jones was the pinnacle trainer with a previous Triple Crown winner with his Calumet connections in 1941 with Whirlaway. The ’40’s alone saw four Triple Crown winners, 1930’s had three while the Roaring Twenties missed the Crown entirely and 1919 saw the very first Triple Crown winner in Sir Barton who predated the title by over a decade. So one can hope that perhaps that the horse who broke the Curse of Apollo can break curses again in a highly-superstitious sport and become the 13th Triple Crown winner.
Despite Mike Smith’s tumultuous introduction to Belmont Park, he returns to his former racing base of New York with an impressive resume to face America’s longest race. He’s won the Belmont Stakes twice, in 2013 with Palace Malice and 2010 with Drosselmeyer. He had a 2nd with Paynter in 2012 and a third with Tiago in 2007 and My Flag, an Ogden Phipps filly, in 1996. In 2015 as Larry Collmus gave a hair-raising sports call, Mike Smith finished 5th on a horse called Frammento as 90,000 thousand people sent their praise to the heavens. Mike Smith commented, “Great to be a part of it. You didn’t win, but you were still feeling pretty good about things, you know?”
On Saturday, June 9th, Justify will step on to the historic track that 45 years to the day saw Secretariat’s heart-stopping performance. It is the 150th running of that race. While there are many worthy competitors to end Justify’s bid for the Triple Crown, you can’t help but hope that perhaps the sport is getting another shot of a “Golden Age” for racing. For a sport that has been around almost as long as the United States has been founded, that has gone decades in between Triple Crown winners; one can hope that given a chance, another striking chestnut colt will make history at Belmont Park on June 9th.
Mike stated on the docu-series Jockeys back in 2009, “I still believe there’s another Derby out for me. I still believe there’s a Triple Crown out there for me and I’m looking for him every day. I’ll find him. Before it’s over, I’ll find him.”
Our fingers are crossed that on Saturday, you’ll have found him.