Cameras await, but Smith not ready for his close up

October 09, 2007 3:08 AM


Mike Smith doesn’t have much to do to complete his resume. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He won a Kentucky Derby.

He’s won 10 Breeders’ Cup races. And although he’s never officially been recognized as one of People Magazine’s most beautiful people, he certainly qualifies. He’s as good-looking, or better, than previous honorees Gary Stevens and Tony Parker, and probably more humble, not that it’s any criterion.

But it sure makes him easy to talk to. The 42-year-old jockey’s niceness comes across as naturally as the sunrise, and his Cheshire cat smile is just as bright. Paraphrasing Melanie Griffith in "Working Girl," he’s got a bod for riding and a face for TV. But he and his handsome mug aren’t getting much national air time these days, and that’s OK with Smith. Despite relatively limited opportunities, he’s getting plenty of exposure in the winners’ circle at Santa Anita.

Among his current mounts is Tiago, a half-brother to Giacomo, who gave Smith his only victory in the Run for the Roses at 50/1 in 2005. Tiago, who won the Santa Anita Derby in April, captured the Goodwood Stakes on Sept. 29 to become a longshot contender for the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Monmouth Park on Oct. 27.

But Smith isn’t quick to give Tiago short shrift. "I’m not too sure how much of an outsider he’s going to be," Smith countered. "I think he should be one of the top four choices. He should be a lot better after the Goodwood (his first race in 11 weeks). He’s improving every day. He’s grown and developed. He’s putting himself in the race now. Before, he’d be a little green about doing it. He was inconsistent about it, but not now, and that’s a good sign."

Smith was the regular rider of 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull, and led the nation in victories that year with 317. He won Eclipse Awards as outstanding jockey in 1993 and 1994.

When he rode regularly in New York, he won the 1994 Venezia Award, given to a jockey who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship and citizenship that were attributes of the late New York rider, Mike Venezia. Smith led New York riders in stakes wins in 1992 with 29 and in 1993 with 42. He rode six winners at Aqueduct twice in the same month in January, 1992.

Smith’s most traumatic and painful injuries came in a gruesome spill at Saratoga on Aug. 31, 1998. He broke two vertebrae and was out almost six months, spending time in a body cast before returning in February, 1999.

Now he’s again in California, where he expects to eventually ride off into the sunset, although he does not plan to hang up his tack in the immediate future.

"I’m glad to be back," said Smith, who is represented by agent Brad Pegram, who also books mounts for hot-riding David Flores. "I spent a little time recently in New York, and I had fun, but it’s nice to be back in California and this is where I’m going to finish it all out. I came to stay and hopefully have more than a few good years before I retire.

"Before my last run in New York, I’d been riding in Southern California mainly for the Mosses (Jerry and Ann, he the "M" of A&M Records fame, and they the owners/breeders of Giacomo and Tiago). Then Jim Cassidy and John Shirreffs asked me to come back. Bob Hess has given me some opportunities, too, so I’m going to take the ball and run with it for a while."

Smith is one of many riders in support of Santa Anita’s Cushion Track, which was installed at a cost of more than $10 million in time for the Oak Tree currently in progress.

"Cushion Track seems great to me so far," Smith said. "I’ve had no trouble with it. It seems to be really fair. That’s what I like about it. You don’t see a bias, where everything’s got to be on the lead or everything’s got to come from off it. If a horse gets away with a decent pace, he keeps on running, and that’s a good thing for the bettors and all of us. It’s frustrating when you have a horse that’s kind of one dimensional and you’re stuck doing one thing. It’s nice to see the track play fair."

So when will we see this short, dark and handsome guy in front of the cameras? Not as long as he’s riding good horses and winning races. But Smith recognizes that the town where drivers use their cell phones but not their turn signals is the place to be when a guy with his physical and vocational prowess seeks representation in Show Biz.

"That’s another good reason to stay in Los Angeles," he said. "This is where it all starts, but what will come after the ride’s over, I’m not sure. I’d love to be in broadcasting, and certainly in the sport. We’ll just wait and see where the road takes us."

The homestretch

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”¡Will someone please mute Chris (Ethel Merman) Berman? The guy’s bluster and blather is defeating his purpose, which is to deliver the news. Berm: You have a microphone. You don’t have to shout. Your insecurity is showing. Take a refresher course in the Marty Glickman school of journalism. Go back, back, back, back, back!