Clocks have attended moments of horse racing throughout history as the silent observer. Their faces so familiar that in one quick glance the passing of time is marked, oblivious to the intricate inner workings necessary to keep the ever so delicate hour, minute, and second hand in revolution.
They beckon the arrival of new life in the midnight hours before the sun can illuminate the hands of time as mares and their keep await the appearance of their newest racehorses.
A stopwatch, in its trainer’s hands, anticipates the fractions told by the quick twitch of a thumb marking the moments between poles as their charges rush past.
The Rolex time keepers standing vigil at Keeneland count down the moments until the next post-time, reminiscing of the days of American Pharoah’s Grand Slam.
They have displayed time on the wrists and in the palms of the men and women in the shedrows, standing at the rails, in the grandstands. The reliable, perfectly balanced minute, hour, and second hand float in an endless rotation.
Tick … a foal is born.
Tock … the next champion saddled.
Tick … a jockey is hoisted over a horse.
Tock … a finish line crossed.
Each tick and tock a reminder of the moments past and the moments future, the cumulative experience of horse racing. Each clock a face only able to mark the passing of time because of each wheel, each cog, each spring, flawlessly working away.
In the world of horse racing, Mike Smith is the face of the clock; he is the minute hand marking the big moments as they go by. More than that, Mike Smith is acutely aware of the intricate inner workings behind him.
Every time he rides there is a story being told: in the flutter of a horse’s skin, the look in their eye, in the response to a cue, in their personality, there is a piece of every person who ever influenced that horse’s life. Like the witness marks on the inside of a clock, the small scratches that remain as evidence of the clock maker’s work, Mike is witness to the witness marks on each horse he rides.
“I understand what goes into this sport, this game, and it motivates me. I see the owners who put all their hard earned money into it, the trainers who put in all the hours, the groomers, the hot-walkers, the galloping boys and girls who spend their time trying to teach the horses, the people at the barns who got them going and broke them. All of that. I think of all of that…. and…. for them to allow me to live out my dream….”
Mike stops, and there is a minute of silence. He never does finish that sentence, but in that moment it becomes clear that this is what sets Mike Smith apart. It is not his accolades, his titles, his trophies, or the names of the horses he has ridden to victory. It is his humility, his gratitude, and his deep understanding for the minutiae of the inner workings of the clock for which he is the face of, that makes him the master of his craft.
Part of that understanding and respect comes from a lifetime of experience growing up on a ranch in New Mexico with a family entrenched in racing. It was Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby win that showed Mike that his slight frame would be perfect for Thoroughbreds, and not the Quarter horses he was used to. At 11 years old Mike was seriously learning to ride from his uncle and by 15 was galloping for him at the racetracks. “I’ve been the guy breaking the babies, teaching them to lead,” he recalls, “I remember we used to send some of our horses off and how it affected me when they would win.”
It wasn’t long before Mike was experiencing wins of his own, quickly scaling the ranks of horses and trainers he rode for. It was his move to the New York racing scene that Mike recalls as being the turning point for his career, particularly when he started beating some of the jockeys he had idolized. From that moment on his career has been an endless pendulum swing of win after win, champion after champion. Mike has been the face of many of the horses who have captured the hearts of race fans around the world: from Holy Bull and Lure to Zenyatta and Arrogate, Mike has taken us on those rides.
“Every time I think ‘oh wow, I’ll never ride another one like that,’ there comes another one, and another one. I’m so blessed. Sometimes I just don’t feel worthy,” says the man who has a talent for bringing horses home victorious.
At over 50 years old, neither Mike nor his success has slowed down. While it may be more demanding on him physically nowadays, his mind is still in the game. ” My mind is really good. I live, breath, and think racing and I get it; I can see things. I’ve got kind of a little funky brain, I guess. I can really see what works and what doesn’t work , to me it seems pretty clear. I have knack for figuring things out, it just kind of comes to me.”
The veteran jockey also refuses to stop learning, despite having proved himself as one of the best, he stays open minded and continues to refine his skill.
And while there aren’t many goals left for Mike to achieve, the ones he has experienced are worthy of repeating, he says, now that he knows how they feel. As for the future? Some day Mike will retire, and then his next move will be decided by that which keeps him thinking, learning, and intrigued – exactly what that looks like is still a mystery. But when his days in the saddle are long gone, it’s not what other people will think of him, he says, but what he thinks of himself that will be of utmost importance:
“People can think whatever they want of me, really, but if I know that I left here and I tried to do the right thing all the time- tried to be honest, good, kind, tried to share my knowledge – what I’ve learned, tried to give back in any and every way, then I was a good man.
I don’t want to go down as being the best rider. At our moments when we shine we are all the greatest, all of us. But it’s what you think about yourself as a human being, that’s what matters. I’m proud of what I’ve done – very proud of it – it’s just what I put my heart into.”
In the world of horse racing, Mike Smith is the face of the clock; he is the minute hand marking the big moments as they go by. It only takes one conversation, one interaction, to realize that Mike is more than just a Hall of Fame jockey. He is a man aware that he is but a fleeting moment in the history of horse racing, connected to the subjects and the horses of both racing past and racing future. He is a man aware that he is the face of every breeder’s prayer, every trainer’s hope, and every person’s dreams come true who ever touched the horses he wins on. They are the faces of his dreams coming true in return.
Like the hands of a clock moving freely in certainty, it is a never ending cycle.
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A special thank you to Jeffrey Doyle for the header image.