This is the dream they all dream as little boys, a Triple Crown on the line, more than 90,000 fans on their feet screaming at the top of their lungs right out of the starting gate, hearts and horses racing, world-class jockeys not even 120 pounds hoping for that precious synchronicity with their 1,200-pound partner, history and white carnations waiting at the end of this grueling mile-and-a-half Test of the Champion.
Mike Smith had won 5,457 races in a Hall of Fame career that was missing only a Triple Crown. He finished fifth on Frammento three years ago, when Victor Espinoza became the first and only jockey to win the Triple Crown on American Pharoah since 18-year-old Steve Cauthen, The Kid, became the youngest jockey to win a Triple Crown on Affirmed in 1978.
Now Smith, 52 years young, was asking Justify to give him the kind of everlasting fulfillment American Pharoah had given Espinoza and trainer Bob Baffert, even if he didn’t need to justify his lofty stature in the sport.
This was Smith’s first try for a Triple Crown, and he knew full well there was no guarantee he would have another opportunity for immortality now that he was in the backstretch of a career no one could possibly have imagined back on a New Mexico farm outside Roswell.
And he did it. Wire to wire from the tricky rail position, holding off a late-charging Gronkowski 1 ³/₄ lengths behind.
Justifinally! for Mike Smith.
Oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown.
On the first undefeated horse to win the Triple Crown since Seattle Slew.
“He’s sent from heaven,” an emotional Smith said as he gazed up to those heavens, so humbled and so blessed and giving thanks to his Lord and Savior as he soaked up the love from the New York racing crowd he has forever embraced.
“Like the song says, ‘If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,’ ” Smith said and smiled.
The old jockey and the champion horse raced in complete harmony together.
“He listens to me,” Smith said.
When Smith wanted Justify to relax, he relaxed. When Smith asked him to go, he went.
“He was perfection today, he really was,” Smith said.
Smith was so at ease he took nap before the biggest race of his life.
“[Baffert] made my dream come true,” Smith said. “He just puts an old man up there to sit still and let a good horse be a good horse.”
Smith finally had experienced the once-in-a-lifetime feeling Espinoza carries forever with him from the day he made history.
“That’s just an incredible feeling. Winning the Triple Crown is the ultimate,” Espinoza said before Saturday’s race. “I will never forget those feelings probably in my entire life. People never thought it was gonna happen, and look, I come here and I nail it, right? It’s unforgettable.”
Jean Cruguet crossed the finish line to make Triple Crown history with Seattle Slew in 1977 and remembers it as one of the best days of his 79-year-old life.
“The best day, when I meet my wife,” Cruguet said.
Ron Turcotte, confined to a wheelchair because of a horrific 1978 spill at Belmont, rode superhorse Secretariat to that 31-length rout in 1973 for his Triple Crown.
“It was really satisfying,” Turcotte said, “but I expected it.”
The triumvirate of the Hall of Fame jockey, the Hall of Fame trainer and the unbeaten, unflappable chestnut colt, who had looked every bit the prohibitive favorite in the days leading up to the race, draped the track in anticipation of the kind of memorable New York event that only the Yankees have provided over the past decade outside of Belmont Park.
Smith has come a long way since he fractured two vertebrae in his upper back in a spill at Saratoga in 1998 and was confined for several months in a body cast, depressed thinking that his dream career might have ended.
“God gave me things when you’re ready to handle ’em,” Smith said. “It took this long, but I was ready.”
Smith has established a reputation as one of the gentlemen of the sport, a racing lifer who liked to pretend he was a horse as a boy.
When he won his first Kentucky Derby in 13 years, he became the second-oldest jockey to find the Run for the Roses winner’s circle, behind Eddie Shoemaker, who was 54 when he won aboard Ferdinand in 1986.
There is a reason they call him Big Money Mike: $312,243,585 in previous career earnings. He is the all-time leader in Breeders’ Cup wins with 26.
His physical-fitness obsession has enabled him to go to show late speed against Father Time: His 2018 win percentage (22) is 5 percentage points higher than his career average, as is his top-three win percentage (50 to 43).
He has made a career of winning with the best horse in the race and sometimes winning when he wasn’t riding the best horse in the race. He races less and wins more these days.
Smith won the Belmont in 2010 on Drosselmeyer and in 2013 on Palace Malice.
“I could stop right now and I wouldn’t complain one bit,” Smith told me recently.
He can stop now and be remembered as a Triple Crown champion.
When he was asked how Justify stacks up against the greatest American thoroughbreds, Smith smiled and said: “I think he’s the greatest of all time — I just won the Triple Crown, man!” and the room filled with laughter.
I asked Smith recently if he thought his life would change if he were to win the Triple Crown.
“No, don’t think it’s gonna change a whole lot. I might get up the next day and go to the same donut shop and have a cup of coffee like I always do,” Smith said with a laugh. “I’ll just have a bigger smile on my face, that’s all.”
Not a frown in sight when you win a Triple Crown.
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