Mike Smith is 52 years old and all muscles and sinew, a product of an intense exercise regimen that has kept him riding professionally long after others have hung up their silks. He is the son of a jockey, was already in the Hall of Fame 15 years ago, and has won all three of the Triple Crown races atop one horse or another, gratifying owners who have often shown they trust him implicitly.
He has just never won all three in one year.
On Saturday, Smith became the oldest jockey to win a Triple Crown, and he did it on one of the most precocious horses of all time: Justify was the first horse since 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a two-year-old. The 13th winner of the Triple Crown only started racing in February of this year.
But to hear Smith tell it, theirs is a relationship based on trust. The jockey with all the experience — he started racing at the age of 11 — has found a partner in the horse with a seemingly preternatural talent for victory. On Saturday, Justify peaked ahead early and never faltered, not for a moment, defeating Gronkowski by a length and three quarters.
“He was about a head to a neck in front the first couple of jumps, so I was really happy with the way he got away from there,” Smith said. “I was just trying to do things that were coming easy to him. A lot of times, in these big turns, you can do some things. I went ahead and let him move a little just to open up, so everyone would move as well and chase me . . . I would be able to give him a breather and then I would move again. He’s such a good horse at that.”
And Smith’s comments a half hour after the race only amplified what he said about Justify moments after crossing the finish line — exuberant, breathless, and as giddy as any kid a third of his age. “He’s so brilliant,” Smith said.
Smith said Justify reads all his cues and respond eagerly. Hands down, take a breather. A squeeze of the hips, time to turn on the equine jets.
“He listens to you, so you can do things like that,” he said. “If I squeeze him a little, he’d jump right back again. We just kind of kept doing that around the last turn and in the end, I just wanted to wait, really for as long as I could, before I really put the pedal to the metal and he dug back in. I felt at that point that he would hold anybody off that was coming.”
Smith was right. Gronkowski — who was trailing badly after the first turn — made a spirited attempt, but it was far too late for the colt who could not only read his jockey’s mind, but who responded so, so eagerly.
“He’s so gifted,” Smith said. “He’s just amazing. I can’t describe the emotions going through my body right now . . . Did you see him standing in the gate? He was standing so still.”
That is, until it was time for him — and for the jockey with a few more rides left in a distinguished career — to move. And oh, did they ever.