At 52, Derby jockey Mike Smith has never been better

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Mike Smith, who will ride Kentucky Derby favorite Justify on Saturday, won an astonishing 15 Grade I races last year, the most since he won 20 in 1994. AP

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Bill Shoemaker courageously snuck long shot Ferdinand up the rail through a thicket of traffic to win the 1986 Kentucky Derby, it was something of a last hurrah for a legendary riding career.

Shoemaker, 54 at the time, still could steal a big race but was no longer the go-to rider for the best horses like he had been for much of his career. To this day, winning a Derby in his 50s remains one of the more unique Triple Crown achievements for any jockey.

But if favorite Justify wins Saturday, putting Mike Smith in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle for a second time at age 52, it will not seem like nearly as much of a time-defying feat. That’s because Smith has turned the twilight years of his career into arguably his most potent chapter.

“Mike has had a better last 10 years, I think, than he did the previous 10 years,” said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas. “He’s doing everything right right now.”

“Big Money Mike,” as he has become known on the backstretch, enters this Kentucky Derby as arguably the one thing that you can count on in a race that’s always full of unknowns. While there’s never a guarantee about what’s going to happen when the gates open, Smith’s highlight reel of rides in big races over the last decade is unrivaled.

And it is why, at a time in most jockey’s careers when they usually aren’t the first call for owners and trainers, he is now the guy trainers like Bob Baffert want on their horses in the biggest races.

“You want big-money riders, and Mike is a big-money rider,” said Elliott Walden, the president/CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Justify.

Though none of Smith’s five Triple Crown race wins have been with Baffert — he won the 2005 Derby with long shot Giacomo for trainer John Shirreffs — the two have formed a potent partnership recently.

Last year, Smith won an astonishing 15 Grade I races, the most since he won 20 in 1994. Of those, nine were with Baffert trainees, a partnership that blossomed in 2016, when Smith rode Arrogate to wins in the Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Smith also maintains a more conservative schedule built toward the big races. Last year, he was top-five in earnings and has a chance this year for the greatest Triple Crown success of his career.

“It’s not that abnormal to see a jockey dominate big races like Mike Smith has for a period of three, four, five years, but the fact he’s done it at the tail end of his career, that’s the strange part,” said Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who is now an analyst for NBC. “They call him ‘Big Money Mike’ because that’s when he shows up. He’s very effective in the biggest races.”

That doesn’t guarantee anything Saturday with Justify, but having Smith on his back certainly gives him a head start on greatness.

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