As a Hall of Fame jockey and two-time winning rider of the GI Kentucky Derby, Mike Smith knows his way around Churchill Downs. After having his morning-line favored mount Omaha Beach (War Front) scratched the week of the race last year, Smith is back aboard a major contender in Saturday's Run for the Roses. Wednesday, the 55-year-old rider who's still at the top of his game joined the TDN Writers' Room presented by Keeneland. Calling in via Zoom from Louisville as the Green Group Guest of the Week, Smith talked about his mount Honor A. P. (Honor Code), his past Derby wins, Holy Bull, Arrogate, whether he thinks about retirement and more.
Honor A. P. punched his ticket for the Derby with a win in the GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby, but was second at 1-5 last out in the Shared Belief S. at Del Mar Smith said he thinks the colt's improved training and distance capabilities give him confidence in a peak effort Saturday.
“The Santa Anita Derby was a mile and an eighth, Shared Belief was a mile and a sixteenth, so he shortened back up,” Smith said. “And he didn't get a whole lot of serious training in between the two races. They certainly wanted him to be peaking at this time and not then. I think his best work going into that race was 1:02 something, so he kind of ran a bit sluggishly and finally came running at the end. And actually still ran really well. He ran a 102 Beyer. But since then, we've really stepped up his training and put some sharp works into him. Then after his two really sharp works, we did a maintenance work and he did it so nice. He went seven-eighths in 1:27 and galloped out in 40, which was really good. He did that all on his own. So he's coming into the Derby training extremely well, really fine-tuned and fit to run his best effort.”
Smith has chosen to stay aboard the John Shirreffs trainee instead of taking the return call on Authentic (Into Mischief), who he rode to victory for Bob Baffert in the GI Haskell Invitational.
“They're tied with each other. The first time they ran against each other [in the GII San Felipe S.], Authentic beat Honor A. P.,” he said. “We'd come off a foot injury, had missed some time, so I knew he wasn't 100% going into that race. In the Santa Anita Derby, I knew he was. And I thought that the distance would really suit him well. I just truly think that when we're going to go a mile and an eighth and further, that's when you see Honor A. P. really start to shine, really start to stand out. And that's just what made my mind up. I can't wait to see what he does going a mile and a quarter.”
Smith reminisced on his previous two Derby wins, first aboard 50-1 shot Giacomo (Holy Bull) and second on undefeated favorite Justify (Scat Daddy).
“We were running out west [with Giacomo] where the tracks were really fast at the time,” Smith remembered. “They weren't suiting him, but he would run second or third and really gallop out strong, so I knew that once we got off the West Coast racetracks, he was going to excel. He was going to run better. Was it going to be good enough for him to win the Derby? I wasn't really sure, but I was talking myself into it. I'd ridden his father in the Derby. He was a big favorite and ran probably his worst race, so I wanted to redeem his father's name. I was using that to keep me pumped up and keep me excited. Then the more I looked at the race, I saw that this pace is going to be really hot. This could really set up for me. And that's exactly what happened.”
“When I was with Justify, it was a whole different story,” he said. “We had all the hype, he was the horse to beat. We actually believed that he had the kind of talent to be a Triple Crown winner. He was that kind of horse. So there was a whole lot more pressure with him.”
Asked about the secret to his longevity and whether or not he thinks about retiring, Smith said, “At times I think about it, but then I think, 'Well, where else am I going to have this kind of fun?' I'm having a blast right now, getting the opportunity to ride in these big races. And if I did anything right early on in my career, I really took up physical fitness instead of going out and playing golf and not doing a whole lot. Every morning, I just made it a way of life. I train every morning. If I'm not training myself, I have two different personal trainers that train me at least five times a week. I go at it pretty, pretty hard. I've been doing it for a long time and it's starting to pay off in my later years. I'm still as fit as I was 10 years ago. So for some reason I'm hanging in there. And as long as I can continue to do that, I plan to ride another few years.”
Elsewhere on the show, the crew broke down the Derby and Oaks fields from all angles and, in the West Point Thoroughbreds news segment, reacted to the creation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act and its corresponding alliance. Then, host Joe Bianca addressed the comments made by Barclay Tagg Tuesday about the racial unrest in Louisville. Click here to watch the podcast, click here for the audio-only version.