DEL MAR, Calif. — There was Mike Smith, all 58-years and 116 pounds of him, slugging it out with the kids again. He’s been doing this jockey thing since Ronald Reagan ruled the Oval Office, winning since he guided Future Man to the wire first at Santa Fe Downs on June 12, 1982.
At a time when many dip into the nest egg and plan an Alaskan cruise, Smith keeps saddling himself to 1,100 pounds or so of horse flesh and fearlessly diving headlong into the most harrowing couple of minutes in sports.
Give it a shot, 30-somethings. He’s fit, sculpted and remarkably ready.
Smith tried to do it again, nearly running down 31-year-old superstar Flavien Prat aboard Arabian Knight in the $1 million Pacific Classic on Saturday at Del Mar. The drama? Still percolating. The drive? That, too.
“I was watching probably Mike Smith more than I was watching my horse during the race,” said Arabian Knight trainer Bob Baffert, who was keenly aware of his long history with the hall of famer as he bagged his record seventh Classic by supplanting icon Bobby Frankel. “What’s he’s going to do? I know ‘Big Money Mike’ …”
It took perhaps the best jockey in the sport and arguably the most accomplished trainer to hold off hard-charging Smith by a neck in a winning time of 2:03.19.
Smith is a fine wine, with the grapes maturing majestically by the mount. He’s notched a few lifetimes’ worth of winning along the way. Twenty-seven Breeders’ Cup races, a record by a mile. He’s won each Triple Crown race, at least twice.
Who was surprised Smith was there at the end, pushing Prat with what Baffert coined as “our Kentucky Derby” on the line? He remains the graying and game North Star.
“Eventually, Father Time catches up,” Smith said. “But right now, he’s allowed me to still compete at this level. I’m having just as much fun, probably more, now. I don’t try to ride as many as I used to, that’s part of it. I prefer quality over quantity right now. I’m not trying to be leading rider at every meet.
“Longevity comes with not taking the hits every play.”
Smith, though, has subjected himself to plenty of danger and physical mayhem. In 1998, he shattered his collarbone in an early-season crash. He returned after three months, only to find havoc again.
“I was having a helluva start that year,” Smith recalled. “I won the Travers and also won the Haskell that year. Then I’m in the last race at Saratoga on the grass. Boom, I got pushed into the hedge, the horse did a somersault, and I went flying.
“She fell on top of me and I broke my back in two places.”
Still, as Del Mar was reminded Saturday, Smith plays the role of Energizer bunny. His workouts, regardless of age, are that of legend. He runs 20 to 30 miles a week.
“I probably do more squats now than I did when I was in my 30s,” he said.
Jockey Juan Hernandez, the leading rider this meet at Del Mar, entered the race as the youngest in the Classic, a few months shy of Prat. He uses the same personal trainer as Smith.
Hernandez is more than a quarter of a century younger, which changes … absolutely nothing.
“We train really hard,” he said. “On Wednesdays, it’s like being in a race, head to head. Nobody gives up until we’ve done it for an hour (straight). He still fights at the same level.”
Prat needed all of the mile and a quarter in front of 12,318 to win on Arabian Knight, who paid $6.20. The “Win and You’re In” race qualifies the team for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 4 at Santa Anita.
In big races, Smith is the breath on your neck. He’s the nagging worry in your rearview mirror.
“Some people say they have an advantage because they’re younger,” Smith said. “I think it’s the other way around. If you’ve taken care of your body, you’ve got all that experience to go along with it.”
Smith paused and grinned.
“If you stay in great shape, the horse does most of the work,” he said.
The duel between Prat and Smith seemed apropos, given the old and new guard feel of it. Seasoned prizefighters, both, a generation or two apart.
Count Smith out at your own risk.
“(Younger jockeys) might say a little something here or there like ‘old man’ or ‘grandpa,’ ” Smith said. “But they’re just messing around. There’s a lot of respect. They’re a talented and classy bunch.”
Smith represents history as much as winning. He’s met multiple presidents, rock stars and all shapes and sizes of celebrities.
“I met the Queen of England several times when she was alive,” he said. “Talk about a horse person. She loved horses.”
Prat showed he has just enough to machete through all that experience and long-crafted know how. The torch has been passed, but Smith did not go quietly into that Del Mar night.
“This is a game of inches,” Smith said. “You learn to appreciate things a whole lot more. You realize this isn’t going to be forever. You don’t think about that when you’re younger, do you?”
They still think about Smith, though.
Just ask Baffert.