2019: Big Money Mike is Top-Grade (I)
If you read through Thoroughbred racing's timeline, you'll find that Mike Smith has made a tremendous impact over the last several decades.
The pride of Roswell, New Mexico has seized a plethora of honors and victories as a race rider, firmly establishing his status as one of the best in the saddle.
With the conclusion of 2010s on the horizon, Smith's resume conveyed staggering accomplishments:
-Winner of more than 5,000 Thoroughbred races and counting.
-Two Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Jockey
-Winner of multiple Triple Crown races.
-One of only twelve jockeys to sweep the Triple Crown, doing so with Justify in 2018.
-The all-time leader in Breeders' Cup race wins with a staggering 26 following the 2019 edition.
-2003 Hall of Fame inductee.
The kid who started riding as a teenager in his home state had made his mark in the sport, and he did so while competing in the big leagues of the New York and California circuits. At the conclusion of the 2019 season, Smith, by now fifty-four years of age, was not done. Seeming to defy age, he was still riding and winning over jocks younger than him, all the while continuing to be one of racing's most respected money riders. Routinely winning multiple stakes at Southern California tracks, across the country, and overseas, Smith had attained the nickname "Big Money Mike" for his ability to deliver on the big stages.
On December 28, 2019, Smith found himself on a big stage once more. The venue was Santa Anita Park, a track that served as host for many of his victories. It was opening day for Santa Anita's annual winter/spring meet, and Smith was booked to ride in some stakes races that day. That was routine, given Smith's status at the elite level of competition. But wins were not just on the line. A monumental achievement was as well, and Smith was on the cusp of snaring it.
Over time, Smith collected Grade I stakes races throughout the United States. Inevitably, the number grew until Smith broke the 200 mark. Then he reached 210. Then it grew to 215, and the latter number put him just one behind Jerry Bailey for the all-time record. It was a tribute of Smith's longevity, fitness, and dedication to his craft. Even if he never won another Grade I, he had nothing to prove. He earned his respect. But the record was squarely in front of him, and what better way to close out a decade then to become its new owner.
Santa Anita kicked off its new season with a trio of Grade I events, and Smith was booked to ride in each one. First up was the 1 1/4 American Oaks on turf. Smith piloted Pretty Point, one of the longest shots in the field. She outran her odds to take third, but Smith still had to wait for the record. The next Grade I came right after the American Oaks in the form of the seven furlong La Brea Stakes, a longrunning part of the opening day program.
Smith was assigned the mount on Hard Not to Love, a winner of three of four races going into the La Brea. All of them came at Santa Anita, so she knew and liked the venue. The two found themselves last early, trailing the rest of the field that was led by odds-on favorite Bellafina. The La Brea progressed quickly, with Bellafina setting quick splits of 21.70 and 44.41 over the initial half-mile. Well inside the far turn, Bellafina left the pack in her dust, with only Mother Mother staying with her. Smith saw the two leaders getting away, knowing that if there was a chance to win, it was time to go for it. He urged Hard Not to Love, who responded in kind. Stationed on the outside, she blitzed past her rivals, heading the pack in mere seconds as she prepared to go wide turning for home. The fast pace set by Bellafina was setting Hard Not to Love up for a perfect shot at the win.
Once straightened in the final stretch, Hard Not to Love and Smith were all business, first reeling in Mother Mother and then Bellafina. They passed by the two horses as if they were standing still, and as they approached the wire, Smith pumped his arm back and forth in celebration, not unlike when he and Zenyatta pulled off their electrifying win in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic. Santa Anita track announcer Frank Mirahmadi, a longtime race fan who understood the rarity and grandness of the moment, communicated the accomplishment to everyone at Santa Anita and to all who watched on television and the Internet. It only seemed fitting that Smith rode a horse trained by John Shirreffs, given how they teamed up to win so many races with Zenyatta as well as the 2005 Kentucky Derby with Giacomo. Some people are just meant to come together and share many triumphs.
History was made in the La Brea, but the day was not over yet. Smith had one more Grade I to ride in, and it was his best chance for a win on the whole card.
While Hard Not to Love went off at over 11-1 odds, there was no way Omaha Beach would be that high. In fact, he was going to be the overwhelming favorite to win the Malibu Stakes, long one of Santa Anita's opening day staples. Already at 4-5 odds on the program, the public saw Omaha Beach having an even better chance to win, setting him at 2-5 on the tote board. Only four opponents attempted to defeat him, but Omaha Beach was talented and consistent. He had yet to finish worse than third, won three graded stakes so far in his career, and two of those were in Grade I company. Moreover, Omaha Beach was coming off a second in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, thus giving him a strong aura over his rivals.
The final horse to enter the starting gate for the Malibu, Omaha Beach went in with no trouble. Drawing the fifth post and beginning outside of everyone else, the son of War Front let Much Better, Complexity, and Manny Wah go on ahead. Smith knew the race was a sprint; he and Omaha Beach could not afford to be too far back. They tracked Manny Wah closely, who was in turn right behind Complexity. Omaha Beach was ready to run, though. He gracefully moved up three wide with Complexity and Manny Wah, and the trio inhaled Much Better well before the homestretch.
Even before then, Omaha Beach got his head in front, and Smith had barely moved a muscle. He knew when to move on a horse, and it was not until they had straightened that Smith asked for more from Omaha Beach.
He got it.
Omaha Beach extended his lead in the final furlong. Smith knew the power that was under him. Omaha Beach was all business, and Smith hand rode him all the way, reaching a place no jockey before him had visited: 217 Grade I wins.
From the announcer's booth, Mirahmadi once again employed his booming voice to tell people they saw something special. Mike Smith was the star of the day at Santa Anita, and the star of the sport, too. He won two Grade I races, a terrific start to a meet for any jockey, and the public saw him guide a horse from off the pace and another from close to the front to gain both victories. He made all the right decisions, and everyone witnessed a master class in riding.
Smith beamed in the winners' circle. When interviewed about his latest record, he remarked being humbled and blessed, paying tribute to trainer Richard Mandella and his staff for how they prepared Omaha Beach. Smith also spoke highly of the colt, giving immense credit to him for the stellar performance. He shook hands gratefully with Mandella, and headed back to the jockeys' room as the new leader in Grade I victories.
In a sport where riders constantly search for top horses, Smith understood and was grateful for the opportunities he had that day and throughout his career. There was a sense of wonder in his post race comments, and a sense of thanksgiving. One of the all-time greats in the saddle, Smith did not do it alone, and the victory was as much a celebration of his riding prowess as it was the respect he earned from and showed to many figures in racing. It carried him a long way, and it took him to one of the true pinnacles of his remarkable career in front of more than 35,000 fans at Santa Anita as 2019 was ready to yield to 2020.
Two Grade I wins and a record in the same day. He is not called Big Money Mike for nothing.