Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Jockey's Career Changes Course after NY Visit

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Jockey's Career Changes Course after NY Visit

Article excerpt

Mike Smith is trapped by his own success, but you don't hear him complaining.

Smith, 28, was a promising young jockey on the Arkansas-Kentucky circuit when he reluctantly took advice from an agent and a trainer in December 1989 and moved to New York. He advised friends that he would be gone for only two months and that they should expect him back at his home base of Oaklawn Park in February.

"I honestly didn't really care how well I did," Smith said, "because I was going back home anyway."

He still hasn't made the return trip.

Smith, who is 5 feet 3, 112 pounds, immediately caught on with horsemen at Aqueduct Race Track that winter, and his popularity has not waned. He has won the riding title at 11 of the past 15 meetings at New York's Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga tracks. He is the country's purses-won leader, at more than $7 million through last week. His mounts earned $11 million in 1992; his take-home pay was roughly 10 percent of that, minus expenses.

Smith is fortunate he likes New York. He couldn't afford to leave if he wanted.

"It all fell together for me, and suddenly I was a fool if I didn't stay," Smith said. "I never really stopped and thought about it, like, `I'm doing this good in New York.' I just kept going on day-by-day. I always knew that if worse came to worse, I could go home and be happy, so that kept the pressure off my mind.

"Now I've done well enough here for long enough that I could relax even if I didn't have anywhere else to go."

Smith was a hot young prospect on the Midwest racing circuit when he left his native New Mexico at age 17 for Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. He spent the next seven years testing the waters at various tracks hoping to find the perfect yearly schedule, winning leading-rider titles at Minnesota's Canterbury Downs in 1985 and at Kentucky's Turfway Park in 1986. But although he made a good living and even had a Kentucky Derby mount, he found himself playing second fiddle to Pat Day at Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs, Keeneland and Arlington Park.

He was having an uncommonly good fall at Churchill Downs in 1989 when New York agent Steve Adika, who had been watching Smith on his satellite dish at the advice of a friend, phoned him with compliments and an offer to come to Aqueduct. Smith politely declined.

Trainer Bill Mott contacted Smith at Adika's request and urged him to reconsider. Kentucky trainer Phil Hauswald also told Smith that he was sending some horses to New York and that Smith could ride them.

Smith had nothing special planned for the two-month break between Churchill Downs and Oaklawn Park. So when Adika called again with more flattery and a second offer, Smith took the bait with reservations.

"I thought I might be making a mistake," Smith said, "but everybody seemed to think it was the right thing to do. …

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