Mike Smith is 52 years old and has already been a member of the National Racing Hall of Fame for 15 years, but his prowess and poise as a jockey who thrives on racing's biggest stages – earning him the nickname "Big Money Mike" from trainer Bob Baffert – is as strong as ever and was on full display Saturday with his ride on Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve winner Justify.
To Smith, the key to his Derby assignment was to keep Justify out of trouble, with a particular focus on the break, and allow the colt to put his enormous talent to work. Baffert figured all the way back this winter that Smith was right for the job.
When Justify first dropped jaws with a 9 ½-length debut win on Feb. 18 at Santa Anita Park, it was with 23-year-old jockey Drayden Van Dyke in the saddle. Smith was at Santa Anita that day, but he did not have a mount in the race, which is not uncommon. At this stage in his career, he rarely rides more than three or four races on a card and keeps his body fresh for the prime opportunities that have preserved his drive for racing after 35 years of competition.
Not long after Justify announced his presence as an immediate player on the Kentucky Derby trail, Baffert decided that it would be Smith instead of Van Dyke on Justify going forward.
"Drayden Van Dyke did a great job with [Justify], but I knew there was going to be a lot of pressure," Baffert said.
Smith had ridden 23 times in the Kentucky Derby, more than anyone other than Bill Shoemaker's 26 trips to the post in the great classic, but Smith and Baffert had only teamed up once, and it was in a similar circumstance when Bodemeister finished second as the favorite in 2012. Bodemeister, just like Justify, had gone without any races as a 2-year-old and exploded on the scene in speedy, powerful fashion. After winning the Arkansas Derby, he nearly was the one to the break the streak of Kentucky Derby futility for unraced 2-year-olds dating back to Apollo in 1882, but he weakened ever so slightly in the final yards after setting a fast pace and finished second to I'll Have Another.
Smith's lone previous victory in the Derby came with a colossal longshot, Giacomo, at 50.30-to-1 in 2005. Besides Bodemeister, he had finished second in the Derby three other times. On four occasions, his mount had come up short as the favorite, including a painful stretch of three times in four years between 1993 and 1996 with the talented trio of Prairie Bayou, Holy Bull and Unbridled's Song.
So Smith had a firm grasp of what could go wrong in the Derby, and he could combine that with a priceless amount of poise from his vast experience with top horses in America's best races, from the Baffert-trained all-time leading North American earner Arrogate to a parade of champion females including Zenyatta, Azeri, Royal Delta and Inside Information.
His strategy with Justify centered on the start, breaking from post 7 for the 10-furlong journey on a track left sloppy and sealed from the wettest Derby day in history.
"I just knew he was capable of this," Smith said. "My job was just to get him out of there. And I did that part, and I figured the rest is up to him. And I know Bob and his crew already did their part. And he's just an amazing horse. I have never been on a 3‑year‑old like this."
Despite the soggy conditions, Justify was up close through fast fractions of :22.24, 45.77 and 1:11.01 through three-quarters of a mile before wresting control from Promises Fulfilled with three furlongs to go. Bolt d'Oro and then Good Magic mounted challenges in the far turn, but by the time Justify reached the top of the stretch, Smith sensed he had plenty left in the tank.
"At the three-eighths pole we put Promises Fulfilled away," Smith said. "I was able to just sit just for a little bit, and he took some air in. As soon as I called on him again, he jumped right back into the bridle and was all racehorse at that point."
Even though Giacomo was 50-to-1, Smith said the emotional experience of winning the Derby was not all that different the second time around with Justify.
"I thought I had a chance with Giacomo," he said. "Honestly, I really did. So the pressure kind of was still there. I like going in on a favorite a whole lot better than I like going in 50-to-1, to be honest with you. I will take that any time. You know, you just know you're on a horse that belongs. Certainly, those are the types of horses that you want to be on.
"I have been blessed to be in this race so many times, and I have run second four times. I just needed to stay cool and calm and get Justify out of the gate and get him in the right spot, get him in a good rhythm. And I knew he was capable of doing this. I'm more relieved than anything and later on I think I'll get excited as the days go on and it will start hitting me."