BALTIMORE — He looks like a ripped version of Yoda, and like the “Star Wars” character, Mike Smith is a Jedi master, only on horseback. He does his best work under pressure, which is why he’s called “Big Money Mike.”
He’s a Hall of Famer still riding at the top of his game at 52. Smith stayed cool Saturday at rain-drenched, foggy Pimlico, overcoming relentless heat from Good Magic to take the 143rd Preakness Stakes with the undefeated Kentucky Derby winner, Justify.
Smith has won the Derby, Preakness and Belmont twice each, and for the first time in his 37-year career, he’ll go for a sweep of the 3-year-old classics.
“Just incredible, a dream come true,” he said. “You just want to get a chance at a Triple Crown. What a way to end a career at my age, riding into the sunset like this. But I’m not planning on retiring anytime soon.
“I just feel blessed to be on a horse like this. I’m on Cloud 9.”
Jose Ortiz was expected to push his Derby runner-up hard from the start and make it a match race, and he did. Good Magic alternated for the lead with Justify and fully extended him until Smith got his chestnut colt clear as they emerged from the soupy fog in midstretch.
“Mike was sitting chilly,” Ortiz said, “I made my run the same time he did, but I didn’t have horse underneath me.”
The 2-5 favorite held off late-running Bravazo by a half-length, with Tenfold third, a neck in front of a spent Good Magic.
“He jumped out of the gate well, but going around the turn, he jumped some tractor tracks and started slipping,” Smith said. “When we got to the backstretch, he got his legs under him. When I looked over to my inside and saw it was Good Magic, and I knew we were in for a battle.
“They kept pushing on us, testing his fitness, trying to wear him out.”
Justify had the grit to survive the protracted speed duel, and he and trainer Bob Baffert were fortunate to have a fitness freak on his back. Smith extended his career by adhering to a rigid regimen supervised by two personal trainers. As jockey Gary Stevens said, “Nobody can keep up with Mike.”
Smith doesn’t accept many mounts anymore, preferring quality over quantity. He had just one other ride Saturday, winning the Sir Barton Stakes on Baffert’s 3-5 shot Ax Man in the race before the Preakness. Justify was only Smith’s 103rd mount this year, compared to more than 550 for Ortiz.
Smith validated his “Big Money Mike” nickname last year by setting the record for average earnings per start, $74,694.
“Mike doesn’t ride 20-1 shots,” Baffert said. “Just favorites.”