LEXINGTON, Ky. – For Mike Smith, it’s the horses that keep him young.
The 56-year-old Smith, a Dexter native, has a reputation that precedes him.
A two-time Kentucky Derby winner with long shot Giacomo (2005) and favorite Justify (2018), Smith also rode Justify to victories in the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, becoming the oldest jockey to win horse racing’s Triple Crown at the age of 52 .
“Big Money Mike” was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003, before he even won his first Kentucky Derby. He also holds the most Breeders’ Cup race wins of any jockey in history.
But if you stick around long enough, opportunities to create history will continue to be offered, and one of those awaits Smith on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Smith will be aboard Taiba (post position No. 12 with morning line odds of 12-1) for the 2022 Kentucky Derby, with the chance to make history as the oldest jockey to win the prestigious race.
That title is held by Bill Shoemaker, who was 54 when he won the 1986 Kentucky Derby aboard Ferdinand.
For context, Smith rode in his first Kentucky Derby two years before this in 1984, when he finished sixth while riding Pine Circle.
“There’s something to take care of yourself. Early on in my career I really got into physical fitness at a very young age, made it a way of life and I’ve kept up with it ever since,” Smith said on a media video call last week. “I feel great. Except for 1998 when I broke my back I’ve been really, really healthy. … I feel like I’m 30 years old and then when you get the opportunity to ride the kind of horses that I’ve been blessed to have ridden the last few years, like Justify and now Taiba, it’ll keep you young. ”
Taiba will be Smith’s 28th all-time Kentucky Derby ride, and this partnership between horse and jockey is a true juxtaposition.
Smith, the most experienced jockey in the history of the race, will be piloting a horse with just two career starts, although both have been wins.
John Velazquez rode Taiba in his debut in March, in a maiden race at Santa Anita Park in California. Smith was aboard for Taiba’s more noteworthy result, a win by more than 2 lengths in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at the same track on April 9.
While the triumph only came against a six-horse field, Taiba bested two other horses that are slated for the Kentucky Derby field: Messier and Happy Jack.
Smith has been the jockey for four of the last five Santa Anita Derby winners.
The last horse to win both the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby?
Justify, which Smith rode to that historic 2018 Triple Crown.
“Although Justify was a bigger colt, this is a nice-sized horse as well. The way (Taiba) covers ground is so fluid, his balance is so nice, a lot like Justify,” Smith said. “He’s pretty intelligent, he’s a smart horse. … I remember Santa Anita Derby day, he was playing in the post parade, but in a good way.
“Hopefully, the crowd won’t bother him,” Smith continued. “Just hope for a good clean break and I can get him into a nice, happy rhythm early on and a good, comfortable place, where he doesn’t have to overcome a whole lot. He’s got the kind of ability to pull it off.”
As he approaches 30 career starts in the Kentucky Derby, what has Smith taken from his experiences in the race?
“You learn to stay in the moment. … You’ll start riding the race a month out if you already know you’ve got (a horse) that’s going in and by the time you get to race day you’re exhausted,” he explained. “You learn to kind of pace yourself, stay in the moment. But some things don’t change, that emotional part going through that tunnel, hearing that song, still puts a big old lump in my throat and I’m excited to be there.”
In addition to a relatively inexperienced horse, Smith will also be going through the race proceedings with a first-time Derby trainer of record.
Tim Yakteen – who has both Taiba and Messier in the projected Derby field – will be making his race debut as the trainer of record. A former assistant trainer for Bob Baffert, Yakteen was part of three Kentucky Derby victories as a Baffert assistant.
Both Messier and Taiba are horses that were formerly trained by Baffert who were transferred to Yakteen as Baffert began his suspension for Medina Spirit’s drug violation in the 2021 Kentucky Derby, which took the Derby title away from the horse and Baffert.
“He knows what it’s like. I’m sure he’s been told by a lot of his peers as well, just fully enjoy it, have fun, stay in the moment,” Smith said of Yakteen, who also went through Derby week when he was an assistant to trainer Charles Whittingham . “Have a good time with it because this is what it’s all about.”
What does Yakteen think about the marriage between the inexperienced, yet talented, Taiba, and the veteran Smith?
“He’s a natural horseman and bestows a lot of confidence in the horse that he’s on,” Yakteen said last week. “It’s great to have someone like Mike being your pilot. … He’s going to guide you through the best and fastest way that the horse is going to get there.”
Smith’s vast experience at Churchill Downs means he knows better than most how to get around the track.
He prefers a post position “somewhere right in the middle,” although he said the new 20-horse gate that debuted for the 2020 Kentucky Derby works better for those drawn on the rail or the outside.
Taiba received post position No. 12 during Monday’s draw.
In a race sometimes decided by fractions of a second or the length of a nose, each and every advantage could be the deciding one.
Smith has spent nearly three decades perfecting how to realize those advantages, both emotionally and statistically.
“The wonderful thing about experience is it teaches you to stay in the moment, slow things down. I think I’m able to do a lot of that now and it certainly helps in these high-pressure situations,” Smith said. “There’s just nothing like the Derby. If you aren’t a little nervous and you don’t have goosebumps, well then something’s wrong with you.”