Mike Smith: Allstar rider prepares for Ascot at the grass roots

US Hall of Fame jockey prepares for the fresh challenge of royal meeting with a recce of Folkestone. Chris McGrath hears why
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The Independent Online

Mr Smith goes to Folkestone. Back in Hollywood, near his home in the hills above Los Angeles, they wouldn't entertain a scenario like this for two minutes. Mike Smith has an everyday sort of name, but that is the only congruity in his arrival tomorrow at one of the least glamorous venues on the British Turf. As when Frank Capra sent his namesake to Washington, however, Smith will inspire any rival who has mislaid the best possibilities of their vocation.

One of the most accomplished jockeys in American history, Smith is making a cameo appearance at Folkestone to ride a young colt for his compatriot, Wesley Ward. Assuming their reconnaissance goes well, Gentlemans Code will proceed to Royal Ascot, where Ward had two winners in 2009.

To the riders in the rudimentary changing rooms at Folkestone, Smith will be the epitome of class, dignity and durability. For Smith himself, meanwhile, this kind of project is precisely what keeps him stimulated, and superbly fit, at 45. Ambition, after all, is necessarily a narrower field than ever for one whose career has been crowned by the incomparable Zenyatta.

True, some here will have had their perceptions distorted by the great mare's only defeat, on her 20th and final start in the Breeders' Cup Classic last autumn. They will remember Zenyatta hopelessly tailed off, passing the stands for the first time, before raking through to join Blame at the post. And they will remember Smith's features crumpled in grief, tormented by the single stride that separated her from an immaculate lifetime record.

But Zenyatta was always too consumed with her own, melodramatic genius to respond to coarse coercion. Sitting in a Newmarket restaurant, shortly after reaching his digs for the week, Smith needs no absolution from the insular or the ignorant. "You can't push her," he says. "You push her, she'd be worse. You gotta wait on her. She was having trouble with the track, she was stumbling, on the wrong lead. And in the meantime they've gone – I mean, they really have gone. If she'd stumbled one more time, I would have pulled her up. I had to make sure she was OK."

Zenyatta was not really gathering her giant stride until the field approached the home turn. "I knew we were too far back to go all the way round," Smith says. "And when Quality Road stopped in the stretch, we hit him. Hard." He simulates the collision with his fists. "So we had to go again. And to only get beat a head, after all that... I knew she was the best horse. So if people ask me, I say I certainly would have done something different – because I know the outcome. I do the same thing, I'm going to finish second again. So give me another chance, yeah, I'd have to."

It's just that he will never, for as long as he lives, know exactly what that something different might have been. Smith was profoundly sensible of Zenyatta's public following, albeit he had himself tended to avoid the circus around her. "She had so many people round her, all the time, when she saw me it had to mean something," he says. "If she saw me, she knew she wasn't going to get a peppermint. This was business. She was going to get to go fast."

Even so, his deep brown eyes shine with the privilege of their intimacy. When he returned to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby, a couple of weeks ago, he marvelled at her dappled coat as she prepares for motherhood, on a nearby stud farm. "She never felt like a big horse," he reflects. "She was so balanced, so light on her feet. Other horses, she'd just ignore them. She'd be running by, pricking her ears, wouldn't even look at them. Even that day, it wasn't like she was all out. That big light across the track, at the wire, she was looking up at that. She made up 30 lengths and was still messing around."

It would do Smith a shocking injustice, however, to dwell too unsparingly on that heartbreak. No active jockey, after all, has won more Breeders' Cup races. And his overall tally is closing on 5,000, including each of the Triple Crown races. He saw out a golden generation – Angel Cordero, Gary Stevens, Jerry Bailey, Laffit Pincay Jnr, Pat Day – and they left him as their benchmark, and mentor, for the next. He is teased as "old man" when he studies the form in his reading glasses, but the smart kids seek him out, just as he once sat down and watched race videos with Day.

He will have proved an apt pupil, having been obliged to learn fast – and very young – in the blood and dust of quarter-horse match racing down in New Mexico. His balance had been honed riding bulls. At nine, he was riding at clandestine meets in "a little rinky-dink place in Artesia". Some brought horse-trailers; everybody brought opinions. "There was a lot of gambling, of course," Smith says. "And when there's money involved, there's always going to be somebody getting mad. Next thing you know, you've got fights, knives, everything."

One or two matches, between known speedballs, would be the talk of the bars all week. But others were impromptu. People would rock up with a colt and a roll of bills. There were few rules on horseback, either. "They would knock you off, if they could," Smith recalls. "You were just a kid, clinging on. I remember once getting whipped all down my back by this older guy. But I still won. And my uncle, when he found out, made sure the poor guy would never do that again. It was a tough school. But fun as well. My grandfather would have a few drinks on the way back, and I'd get to drive home from the bar. I was only 10 or 11, looking over the wheel, pulling a trailer."

Everyone on the circuit knew Peligro. He came up from Mexico, would run for $1,000, sometimes even $5,000. One week, his usual rider was injured, and Peligro's owner sought out the Smith kid. All these years later, the Hall of Fame jockey laughs with delight. "His mane was so long, in the photo all you can see is my butt sticking out the back."

It is safe to say that Smith has known rougher rides than five furlongs over firm ground at Folkestone. Peligro was the first link, but you can never say that even Zenyatta has completed the chain. "I never stop learning, even now," he says. "Riding out for Luca Cumani this week will be a great experience. And I'm so excited about Royal Ascot. You know, I'm enjoying it more now than 10 years ago. After a while it becomes numbers, and you forget why you started. Now I pick and choose, and remember why I love it."

Ward wants Smith at Folkestone to experience a straight track after 30 years of making left turns. But 20 years ago Smith rode the first American-trained horse to win a European Classic, Fourstars Allstar in the Irish 2,000 Guineas. Smith remembers the mesmerised commentator: "He said I was switching my whip back and forth like I had hot rocks in my hands." Pulling up, he was so excitedly offered high fives that he nearly galloped straight into a stone wall running along the chute. If you ask this Mr Smith, he has ended up in another Capra film altogether: It's A Wonderful Life.