CHESTER - In most sports, induction into the hall of fame occurs after the culmination of an athlete's competitive career. But that's not the case in Thoroughbred racing, as exemplified by jockey Michael Earl Smith, who has registered many major accomplishments following his induction to the sport's Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., nine years ago.
Smith will ride Hansen in the 43rd edition of the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby Saturday. Smith has won stakes at 37 North American tracks. Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort is one of them.
In 2009, Smith scored in a trio of stakes on the West Virginia Derby undercard. He won the Mountaineer Juvenile Fillies with For Royalty (a Todd Pletcher trainee). He won the Harvey Arneault Memorial with Ravalo. And he won the West Virginia Legislature Chairman's Cup with Piratesonthelake.
SMITH ON THE MOUNT — Hall of Fame jockey Michael Smith will ride Hansen in the 43rd edition of the Grade 2, $750,000 West Virginia Derby Saturday. Smith has won stakes at 37 North American tracks. Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort is one of them.
But the biggest prize eluded Smith that day. In the featured event, he had the mount on Mine That Bird, who had won the Kentucky Derby, and remains the only winner of any Triple Crown race to run at a West Virginia track.
What happened at Mountaineer remains bewildering. The speedster Big Drama, who went to the post as the 4-5 West Virginia Derby favorite, shot to a 10-length lead through the opening half-mile. Mine That Bird, the second choice at 9-10, closed the gap to about two lengths approaching the eighth-pole. But, nearing the wire, the 23-1 shot Soul Warrior drove past both of them to gain a half-length victory.
"It was total riding error - I'm not really happy with the way I rode this horse today," said Smith that day.
Well, maybe, but the race unfolded in a very odd manner. And there's also the fact that in the nine starts Mine That Bird made following his Kentucky Derby victory, under the guidance of three different jockeys, he never won another race.
The 46-year-old Smith is originally from Roswell, N.M. He began guiding racehorses to the winner circle at southwestern bush tracks when he was 11, and five years later commenced his career at pari-mutuel ovals.
The past April, Smith registered his 5,000th career victory - he ranks 25th on the all-time list of North American riders in that department, and he has a career strike rate of 16.3 percent. On the all-time North American list of purse earnings by riders, Smith ranks ninth, with nearly $228.2 million.
He possesses a truly amazing resume: victories aboard Giacomo (a 50-1 shot) in the 2005 Kentucky Derby; Prairie Bayou in the 1993 Preakness Stakes; Drosselmeyer in the 2010 Belmont Stakes; and with Holy Bull and Coronado's Quest in two editions of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga. There have been two Eclipse Awards and the Mike Venezia Memorial Award for "extraordinary sportsmanship and citizenship."
There are the 15 triumphs by Smith in Breeders' Cup events, including the 1997 and 2011 editions of the Breeders' Cup Classic with Skip Away and Drosselmeyer. But the horse who will forever be linked to Smith is the racemare Zenyatta, who gained 19 consecutive wins, the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic among them.
Sixteen of Zenyatta's victories occurred with Smith in the irons. But the same was true for Zenyatta's only career defeat, which occurred in her final career start, the 2010 Classic at Churchill Downs.
In that race, closing from 12th (and last) position as was her forte, Zenyatta had to be steadied on the far turn, she had to alter course turning into the stretch. Inside the eighth-pole, Zenyatta had her male opponent Blame squarely in her sights.
But Blame, a very good horse, had just enough left to hold off Zenyatta by a head.