- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Mike Smith rescued his career by winning the Kentucky Derby this month aboard long-shot Giacomo. That seems only fair: It was the lure of the roses that nearly took away his livelihood, too.

The Hall of Fame rider enters the 130th Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico hoping to show the colt’s upset in the Derby as a 50-1 choice wasn’t a fluke. He knows all about having to prove himself.

Smith was one of the nation’s top riders in the early 1990s. He won the 1993 Preakness aboard Prairie Bayou and the next year rode Holy Bull, the horse of the year in 1994. The top horses seemed to be regularly available to him, and he rode 10 division champions.

A nasty spill at the track at Saratoga in 1998 changed everything.

Smith broke his back, and he spent months in a body cast recovering. Smith chose not to take much time off, returning six months later in preparation to ride Cat Thief in the 1999 Derby. He finished third in that race and later seventh in the Preakness aboard the colt, but he now says he was foolish to return too soon.

“I was at such a high point when I got hurt,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to give it up. I came back probably five months too soon. My doctor told me [not to come back so soon], but I was so bullheaded, and I wanted to ride the Derby so bad.

“It was a serious injury, and it takes a couple of years before [you] get back to being the same. I broke it pretty bad. I shattered T-12, hairline fractures and other vertebrae. Your whole body is off. I should have given it the time it needed, and it almost ruined my career.”

Smith needed nearly two years to right his career again. After winning 15 riding titles in New York, Smith in 2001 headed for California, where he steadily regained the elite horses. Smith rode Azeri during two championship seasons that included Horse of the Year honors in 2003.

“After two or three years [following the injury] I knew I was back,” Smith said. “It was just a matter of people having the confidence in me again. You go from being on top of the world and then struggling, and people think you’re not the same anymore. Inside, I always felt that and just needed a chance to prove it.”

But a victory in the Derby remained Smith’s greatest desire. Jockeys often are asked by non-racing fans whether they have won it, as if it’s the only barometer of racing success.

Smith finished second aboard Prairie Bayou, Citizen (2002) and Lion Heart (2004). He also lost aboard Derby favorites Holy Bull (1994) and Unbridled’s Song (1996). Smith wondered whether he had had his last chance.

“I had so many good chances to win,” he said. “But getting hurt and not knowing if you’ll ever do it …”

Smith knew he had found another chance when he galloped Giacomo two months before the colt’s debut. Giacomo’s balance resembles that of his sire, Holy Bull.

“From day one, he reminded me so much of Holy Bull,” Smith said. “The way he acts, the way he feels under you.”

It wasn’t an easy start for Giacomo on the Southern California circuit, though. He finished a career-worst fifth in his July 15 debut and gained his only pre-Derby victory in a maiden race Oct. 16, winning by 10 lengths.

Giacomo then alternated second- and third-place finishes over his next four starts before finishing fourth in the Santa Anita Derby on April 9.

Smith said he never considered jumping to another Derby contender, and owner Jerry Moss never considered changing jockeys in hopes of gaining new momentum for the underperforming colt.

“[Trainer] John [Shirreffs] would just look at me and say, ‘He has absolutely done nothing wrong on this horse. In all of the times he’s ridden him, he’s given him the perfect ride,’ ” Moss said. “He absolutely fit this horse, so it never came up in our minds to make any switch at all.”

Giacomo won the most competitive Derby in a decade, a race in which four horses led in the stretch. Smith wheeled Giacomo outside at the top of the stretch, getting a clear path and catching Afleet Alex with six strides to the wire.

This jockey no longer is just another Smith or Jones in the saddle.

Smith went on the talk-show circuit and “signed so many autographs I don’t know how to spell my name anymore.”

He also recently has changed racing circuits; the Kentucky base allows him to ride more horses nationally.

“I just needed to get back in the groove,” Smith said. “Certainly, coming back to Kentucky helped me get there. I started riding well, and it carried over to Churchill Downs, and I was proud of myself. I did good. I did really good.”

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