LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Mike Smith showed how he got his nickname.
“Big Money Mike” came up with another impressive victory, this time aboard Justify in the Kentucky Derby. He has won in many ways, but Saturday all it took was a big move at the start that gave the horse all the room it needed on a sloppy track to remain unbeaten.
Smith guided Justify to a 2½-length victory over Good Magic in the 144th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs and earned his second Derby victory. It was his first Derby win since 2005 with 50-1 longshot Giacomo. The 52-year-old Smith is the second-oldest Derby winner behind Bill Shoemaker, who rode Ferdinand to victory in 1986 at age 54.
Smith has achieved so much on the big stage, but he doesn’t take anything for granted at his age. Especially a chance to ride a top-flight horse like Justify.
“Just keeping riding horses like this and that’ll keep you around a long time,” Smith said. “You don’t have to work a whole lot; they do all the work for you.”
Smith helped Justify improve to 4-0 and become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win without racing as a 2-year-old.
And the jockey made it look almost easy racing in pelting rain and on a muddy, crowded track. Smith got Justify near the lead at the start and left the other horses to deal with the muck.
Smith who has 5,456 career wins, was none the worse for wear afterward with nearly spotless green-and-white silks. He is one of the sport’s best-conditioned riders and a keen tactician, a couple of the reasons why trainer Bob Baffert chose Smith to ride Justify after breaking his maiden beneath Drayden Van Dyke. It also is one reason Baffert appeared so calm all week.
The rain and track made Baffert nervous, albeit only briefly, as Justify and Smith ran another impressive race.
“He was just ... he’s all Hall of Fame,” Baffert said. “He came through. That’s a lot of pressure.”
Justify came into the Derby off a three-length win in the Santa Anita Derby and even had a March win in the mud at the California track. Despite concerns about the so-called Apollo Curse continuing, he went off as the 5-2 favorite from the No. 7 post at Churchill Downs.
Smith made sure the horse quickly delivered on the expectations.
He found a hole right away for Justify out of the gate and kept the horse to the outside alongside Promises Fulfilled through the backstretch. He made his move in the far turn and steadily pulled away for his most significant win.
“What happened today is what I have been daydreaming about all afternoon,” Smith said. “I just knew he was capable of this. My job was just to get him out of there. I did that, and the rest is up to him.”
Thirteen years after his previous Derby win, Smith is grateful Saturday with his second.
“I have been blessed to be in this race so many times,” he added. “I’m more relieved right now than anything. I think later on I’ll start getting excited as the days go on.”