Mike Smith on Marriage, Preparation, and Choosing a Derby Horse

Jockey Mike Smith must choose between two Kentucky Derby horses in Omaha Beach (pictured) and Roadster.
Jockey Mike Smith must choose between two Kentucky Derby horses in Omaha Beach (pictured) and Roadster. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom Pedulla is interviewing prominent owners, trainers and jockeys for America’s Best Racing as they travel the Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on Saturday, May 4, at Churchill Downs.

In the latest installment, he speaks to Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith, who has a wonderful but likely impossible act to follow after sweeping the Triple Crown last year with undefeated Justify. Smith finds himself in the enviable position of choosing between prime Kentucky Derby contenders this year after guiding Roadster to victory in the Santa Anita Derby and then, this past Saturday, reaching the winner’s circle with Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby.

Smith, 53, should have a big shot at again bringing home the roses no matter what he decides. Both potential mounts are trained by Hall of Famers. Roadster is conditioned by Bob Baffert and Omaha Beach by Richard Mandella.

Smith also touched on a number of other subjects as part of a wide-ranging interview, below. UPDATE: Smith announced on April 16 that he would ride Omaha Beach in the Kentucky Derby.

PEDULLA: Are your competitive juices flowing after winning the Arkansas Derby with Omaha Beach?

SMITH: Certainly. Any time you can win one of the major Derby preps, it’s always a good thing, a great thing.

PEDULLA: What has Omaha Beach shown you?

SMITH: Well, he’s extremely talented. He’s very tactical. Has a very high cruising speed.

PEDULLA: What has Roadster shown you?

SMITH: They’re both so talented, it’s going to be a tough decision to make. They’ve passed every test you’d want to give them with flying colors going into the Derby.

PEDULLA: Do they have any similarities?

Smith and Justify after their Triple Crown triumph
Smith and Justify after their Triple Crown triumph (Eclipse Sportswire)

SMITH: Just the quality, really. Omaha Beach would be a little quicker the early part of the race probably, have a little more speed. Roadster has laid a little closer at times, but the Santa Anita Derby showed he could sit back and make one run. They are both way, way above average.

PEDULLA: You won the Derby with 50-1 Giacomo in 2005. Had you at all given up on winning a second time?

SMITH: I still ain’t giving up on another one.

PEDULLA: How commanding was Justify’s performance in that Derby?

SMITH: I think he showed how great he was in all three. Honestly, I don’t think we got to see the best of him. It takes a special horse to do what he did. And in the amount of time that he did it, I can’t even believe it.

PEDULLA: Does the glow of the Triple Crown stay with you?

SMITH: It’s like the lamp in the Statue of Liberty. It just don’t go out, buddy.

PEDULLA: I know you were married in January. How is married life treating you and Cynthia?

SMITH: It’s been really great. We really enjoy what we do together. She’s been able to travel with me some. We’re really blessed. We’re doing good together.

PEDULLA: I guess a big change for you?

SMITH: We’d been seeing each other for quite a while. The big change is living together. We had never lived together. So it’s just moving things around here and there to make everything fit.

PEDULLA: You don’t ride as often as many of your competitors. How do you offset that to make sure you are prepared?

SMITH: I’ve kind of gotten it down to a science. Staying to my routine, I can go three, four, five, six, seven days without riding and feel as though I’ve been riding all along.

PEDULLA: How do you stay in sync?

SMITH: I’ve been blessed to have been around for a while. I’ve ridden at all of these racetracks in the United States anyway, so I know them all very well, especially New York, California, Kentucky and Arkansas. That’s where I kind of started. I’ve ridden at all of those racetracks for a period of time, not just in and out. And then getting the opportunity to ride in big races time and time again, you learn how to handle everything.

PEDULLA: What was the last time you had pre-race jitters?

Smith and Roadster after the Santa Anita Derby
Smith and Roadster after the Santa Anita Derby (Eclipse Sportswire)

SMITH: Every time I ride a big race.

PEDULLA: Really?

SMITH: Yeah. I think I’d retire if I didn’t. If I didn’t feel anything, it would be awful boring.

PEDULLA:  How does your big-race experience help you?

SMITH: You learn to use that energy. You learn to focus and slow it down. You learn to adapt and adjust. All of these things you learn with time.

PEDULLA: Do the races unfold somewhat slowly for you?

SMITH: Yeah, at times they do.

PEDULLA: Any idea how much longer you want to ride?

SMITH: As long as they keep wanting me and as long as I feel I can still contribute and compete with everybody. The good Lord willing, if I can stay healthy, I can keep doing this another three, four, five years.

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