Mike Smith is far from the biggest athlete at 5’4″ and 114 pounds. Despite being small in stature, the 52-year-old jockey has a list of accomplishments that rival the top athletes in other sports. According to America’s Best Racing, Smith has 5,462 wins over his career, and has has 14,333 top-three finishes.
Smith has managed to outlast the majority of his competitors, and remains one of the top jockeys despite being much older than most of the other jockeys. Smith has made more than 33,000 starts thanks to his tremendous dedication to keeping himself in top shape. Smith’s trainer, Brian Killion, who works with pro athletes in multiple sports, notes Smith is the most conditioned athlete he works with.
“Why is he so successful?” Killon explained to The New York Times. “This right here. I’ve never had anyone as well conditioned as this guy. If I trained the way I train him, I’d pass out.”
There is a dark side to horse racing as some jockeys take drastic measures to maintain weight. Each race has strict guidelines to ensure the horse is not overloaded as well as has the ability to reach top speeds.
“If you tack 118, you get to weigh 115,” Smith explained the Paulick Report. “That’s not bad. Three or four pounds down lower than that, that’s when it really gets to you. And you can do it for one race, but you’ve got to remember you might be riding five others before that one. You’re not at your best. You can’t be.”
Smith noted he has seen some healthier shifts from jockeys in recent years.
“I would like to think so many wrong decisions were made because we weren’t hydrated enough and didn’t have the food in our body,” Smith noted to the Paulick Report. “I don’t think we realized back in the day how important hydrating the body is and how important food really is. It’s fuel, fuel for the body, and I think back then we didn’t think about it much. You just tried to get as light as you could and you didn’t care what you felt like.”
Smith has two wins each at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont. Smith has an opportunity to add a Triple Crown to his resume thanks to Justify. Trainer Bob Baffert and Smith have a long relationship that dates back to 1998.
“Mike doesn’t care about anything but winning at this point in his life,” Baffert told Sports Illustrated. “Watch him when he wins. He doesn’t stand up and celebrate, he just lets the horse pull up properly. The guys who stand up, lean one way or the other and raise their hands, that throws off a horse’s balance. Mike understands the whole deal. He’s a professional. He acts like he’s been there.”
According to Sports Illustrated, Baffert and Smith had partnered in 2002 on the horse Vindication. After Smith led Vindication to victory at the Breeders’ Cup, Baffert opted to replace Smith with Jerry Bailey for the Kentucky Derby. Over a decade later, Smith is one win away from a Triple Crown thanks to Baffert’s belief in the jockey.