ARCADIA, Calif. — Mike Smith was more relieved than celebratory after his 5,000th career victory. Kind of how the Hall of Fame jockey felt during Zenyatta’s 19-0 winning streak.
Smith won $150,000 stakes races back-to-back at Santa Anita to reach the milestone, the 25th jockey in thoroughbred history to do so. He accomplished the feat riding one of his favorite horses, Amazombie, last year’s champion sprinter.
Smith won by three-quarters of a length, never needing his whip to get home first. He deliberately rode lower in the saddle.
“I got down just to show the guys in the (jockeys’) room that the old guy could still get down,” he said, laughing. “I got to shake the young boys up in the room every now and then.”
At 46, Smith isn’t riding as many races as his younger competition. He ranks 24th in purse earnings nationally, with $1.5 million so far this year. Among the top 25 jockeys in purse money, Smith has the fewest starts of any of them. Leading money winner Ramon Dominguez has ridden more than 200 races than Smith this year.
“I’m not winning a lot of them, but we’re winning the right ones,” he said. “That’s what really matters to me.”
Smith has built a reputation as a big-money rider, with his greatest success coming in the Breeders’ Cup, including three wins in the $5 million Classic. He and retired Hall of Famer Jerry Bailey are tied for the most victories in the event’s history with 15. Smith has won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont once each in a career that began in 1982.
“My career has been incredible. I wouldn’t trade it with no one,” Smith said. “I’m happy with the way I’m riding. I can win races and be unhappy and right now I feel really good. I’m having more fun now than I’ve had in a long time.”
Smith might be best known as the regular rider of Zenyatta, the superstar mare who won 19 of 20 career races before retiring in November 2010. He guided her to 17 consecutive victories and was aboard for her only defeat, the Breeders’ Cup Classic in her last race.
“As the win streak went on and on and on with Zenyatta, it got to be more of a relief every time we got the next one off,” he said. “It was more of a ‘whew’ instead of a celebration.”
After Smith reached 5,000 in the $150,000 Potrero Grande Stakes on Saturday, he kissed Amazombie on the neck.
“I’m just happy that I finally got it done and to do it on Amazombie for Bill Spawr was really special,” Smith said. “He’s been one of the guys, him and John Shirreffs, who have been behind me really, really strong since I’ve been out in California and it’s nice to win it for him.”