Smith Snares Elusive Belmont
SMITH SNARES ELUSIVE BELMONT
At 44 years of age, as retirement looms on the horizon, jockey Mike Smith yesterday finally got the one big race that had eluded him all his illustrious career when he drove Drosselmeyer to the wire to win the 142nd Belmont Stakes before tens of thousands of cheering fans.
Smith, one of the great riders of the modern era, has won just about every major thoroughbred race in America, from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness to a hatful of Breeders' Cup races, but he never had won the Belmont Stakes. He had had 12 tries, snatching a second and a couple of thirds, but never the win.
Yesterday he got it and the first thing that came to his mind was that he had finally snagged the Belmont, he had filled in the big gap in his career resume.
Smiling, waving his whip above his head, doffing his helmet, he could not contain his joy. "At last," he cried. "This is terrific."
What made it even more special was the brilliance of the ride. Smith got Drosselmeyer smartly out of the gate, worked him clear on the first turn, settled him into a beautiful rhythm, then set him down in the stretch where he cruised away to register an upset 13-1 over 11 gasping rivals. The old man and the horse showed them all how it's done.
Smith did not mention it, but his triumph sealed one of the greatest comebacks in jockey history in New York. Back in 1998, Smith broke his back in a catastrophic fall at Saratoga, forcing him to wear a body cast for months. He returned to riding six months later, but it was the end of the line for his career in New York.
Trainers, afraid he had lost his nerve, locked him out. Smith was forced to leave town. He hustled rides at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, places like Canterbury Downs. Eventually he settled in California, struggling to reinvent himself. The exercise was humiliating.
Smith had owned New York. He rode winners by the hundreds in the Big Apple, leading the nation in 1995 and 1996. He won nearly all its big races. Then, it all fell apart and in a sense, he had to take the bus out of town.
But he climbed back on top in California, hitting the pinnacle when he went to Churchill Downs and won the Kentucky Derby on the 50-1 bomb Giacomo. Then last year, he secured the ride on the incomparable filly-mare Zenyatta from the same stable as Giacomo. Together, they are unbeaten after 16 races. Terrific.
He is now closing in on 5,000 victories, his horses have won more than $205 million, placing him fifth among all active riders on the money list. He is in the Hall of Fame.
But New York was the town that turned its back on Mike Smith and told him to take the highway. He never forgot it. And that's why his victory yesterday on Drosselmeyer was so ecstatic. This was redemption, in a sense. And if you want to know what it meant to him, consider what he said after he dismounted, "This means everything in my career. I feel complete."
And yet there was even more to the saga. Kent Desormeaux had ridden Drosselmeyer in seven of eight races, but as the Belmont neared, the colt's owners, WinStar Farm gave Desormeaux the boot. And what did they do? They reached out to Mike Smith. Imagine, the old boy at 44 was being called upon to try and revive the horse by substituting for a jockey like Desormeaux, who won last year's Belmont aboard Summer Bird.
Drosselmeyer finished fourth in the Risen Star with Kent, third in the Louisiana Derby and then second in the Dwyer after a nightmare trip. That did it. They called Smith.
"We felt this horse needed a change," said the owners' spokesman, Eliott Walden. "Kent has ridden a lot of horses for us. We have a lot of faith in him. But we needed a change. We felt a jockey like Mike Smith would get the horse into his rhythm."
And that's exactly what he did.
"He got away good, and he settled in nicely on the backside, cruising along with a nice rhythm," Smith said. "Then when I asked him to run, he really kicked in. He ran a great race. I love Belmont, I love riding on this track."
He said when he first came to New York to ride it was like "a dream come true."
"To ride against jockeys like Angel Cordero, Jorge Velasquez, Pat Day was fabulous," Smith said. "I did very well here, but the Belmont Stakes was the one race that eluded me.
"When Bill Mott [Drosselmeyer's trainer] called me on the phone to offer the ride on Drosselmeyer I knew right then I was going to win it. It was like when I got the ride on Giacomo. I knew I was going to win on him, too. I can't explain it. But I know I was jumping up and down, and I couldn't wait to get into the race."
At 44, Mike Smith yesterday became a hero again in the biggest and best city in the world. It doesn't get much better than that for anyone, especially for a jockey that nobody wanted.
by Ray Kerrison
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