Mark Story

On what may be a horse for the ages, jockey Mike Smith scores a victory for the aged

Even at the highest level of one's sport, sometimes the key to success is something completely simple.

When trainer Bob Baffert conferred with jockey Mike Smith in the paddock before the duo sent the favored Justify out to run in the Kentucky Derby, one thing was emphasized.

The difference between victory and defeat in America's premier horse race was apt to be whether or not Smith could get Justify to break cleanly out of the starting gate at the beginning of the Derby's 20-horse cavalry charge.

"My job," Smith said later, "was just to get him out of there."

When Smith did just that, breaking clean aboard Justify and easing into the first turn placed just on the outside of pace-setting Promises Fulfilled, the jockey says he all but exhaled in a release of nerves right there on the track.

"Once (Justify) broke clean, by no means did I think I had it won," Smith says. "But I was like 'Sigh of relief.' (I was like) 'You do it from here, man.'"

Justify handled his part just fine.

Withstanding withering early-race fractions and holding off Blue Grass Stakes winner Good Magic plus Audible in the stretch, Justify won the 144th Kentucky Derby before a rain-drenched crowd of 157,813 at Churchill Downs.

The victory by Justify ended an ancient Derby "curse." No horse who did not run a race as a 2-year-old — which Justify did not — had won the Run for the Roses since Apollo in 1882.

Aboard a horse that ended an historic hex, Smith scored a victory for the "aged."

Smith, 52, became the second-oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby. Bill Shoemaker was 54 in 1986 when he won the Derby aboard Ferdinand.

Smith's second Derby win came 13 years after his first, the shocking 2005 win on 50-1 shot Giacomo.

It came 34 years after he rode in his first Kentucky Derby, a sixth-place finish on Pine Circle during Ronald Reagan's first term in the White House in 1984.

A Roswell, N.M., native, Smith was likely the nation's top jockey in the mid-1990s. He won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey in 1993 and '94.

However, his career entered a fallow period after he broke his back in a spill at Saratoga in 1998 on a filly named Dacron in a $90,000 turf race.

For a time afterward, Smith stopped getting the best horses and his career waned.

Now, at an age when he's old enough to join the AARP, Smith has instead been in full career-renaissance mode. The rider that Baffert calls "Big-Money Mike" won a whopping 15 Grade I races in 2017, nine of them for Baffert.

A quick Google search will reveal pictures of a shirtless Smith, a physical fitness buff, looking ripped.

Yet in earning his second Derby win, it was Smith's craftiness and ability to safely navigate the chaos that can be a Kentucky Derby start that proved crucial.

"We had a little game plan, it was just to get out of the (starting) gate," Baffert said.

Once Smith and Justify succeeded in that, they had to withstand a furious early pace (22.24 seconds for the first quarter mile, 45.77 for the first half) tucked right outside the pace-setting Promises Fulfilled.

Just after the three-quarters mile mark, Justify put Promises Fulfilled away and settled on the lead.

The question now was whether the big Chestnut colt had enough left in the tank to hold off the late-chargers.

Good Magic made a strong move around the final turn. Audible was charging along the rail deep in the stretch.

Justify had more than enough to hold off each.

"We could have run around (the track) again (a second time) and he wasn't going to let anybody get by," Smith said of Justify.

Showing that 52 can be the new 32, Mike Smith is not letting anyone pass him, either.

Mark Story: 859-231-3230; Twitter: @markcstory