By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
Jockey Mike Smith, a Catholic who rode Justify last year to a Triple Crown victory, prays before every race. Remarkably, he’s not praying to win.
This Saturday’s 145th Run for the Roses, when he’ll try for his third Kentucky Derby win, will be no different.
“It can be a dangerous sport. I don’t pray to win, I just pray for safety,” he said during a phone interview two days after riding Omaha Beach to victory in the April 13 Arkansas Derby. Smith was originally scheduled to ride Omaha Beach in Saturday’s race but the dark bay colt was pulled from the race due to a respiratory condition.
Smith is now scheduled to ride Cutting Humor in the Kentucky Derby.
The Hall of Fame jockey credits his faith in God and hard work for his successes.
“My faith is my life, not a part of my life. Everything else is a part of it, except that,” he said.
“I don’t like to get the day started without” prayer, he noted, adding that he prays all day for whatever crosses his mind.
“It’s funny, it’s always been that way. I remember praying when I was in school, sometimes praying that I wouldn’t get in trouble,” he said with a good-natured chuckle.
Ahead of the glitz and glamor of Louisville’s most famous week, Smith headlined the Race for Grace charity dinner April 29 at Churchill Downs’ Millionaire’s Row.
Funds raised at the Race for Grace event, hosted by the Kentucky Race Track Chaplaincy, support the men and women who work on the backside of racetracks in Kentucky, including Churchill Downs.
Smith said he has a great deal of respect for the work of the KRTC to support track workers.
“KRTC is amazing. People need help wherever you are, in whatever profession,” he said. “They (KRTC) do a lot of wonderful things, especially for the workers on the backside.”
Smith was born and raised on his family’s ranch in New Mexico and knew from a young age his future would center on horses.
“As far back as I can remember, I always had a horse. While other kids got bikes, where I’m from everyone got a horse,” he said.
His parents and grandparents were the first teachers of his faith, he noted. His grandmother, Rosita Vallejos, in particular, instilled in him a love for the Catholic faith.
“She, without a doubt, was the strongest influence on my faith. She prayed with me before bed when I was little. She taught me prayers in English and Spanish,” he recalled.
“My faith means everything to me. I would not have anything if I didn’t have it,” he said. “Life wouldn’t be worth living without my faith. We are put here to do the great things the Lord wants us to do — to help others if we can, be there for people, love people, to be humble, gracious, kind, considerate, caring.”
Smith’s racing pedigree is well known to those who follow horse racing. He began racing in the early 1980s. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003.
In 2005, he rode longshot Giacomo to victory in the Kentucky Derby. And in 2018, when he rode Justify at age 52 to a Triple Crown, he became the oldest jockey to win the title.
When he’s at home in Southern California, Smith attends St. Rita Church in Sierra Madre. He’s attended the Archdiocese of Los Angeles parish for about 15 years.
With all his successes in horse racing, the jockey added, he’s still not done.
“It’s who I am. There’s nothing like it; I can’t replace it with anything else — the thrill of riding an amazing athlete like a horse, especially when you are crossing the wire. I don’t want to give it up, not yet anyway,” he said.
This story was updated May 1 at 7:12 p.m. The scratch was announced after press deadline Wednesday.
This story was updated May 3 at 9:19 a.m.