Tough as Nails Jockey Mike E. Smith Justifies his Career Choice
By: Tuff Hedeman Bull Riding
"He was gutsy and fearless as a kid and it's no surprise to anyone that he is now one of the most successful jockeys on the planet," said his long-time friend, Tuff Hedeman.
52-year-old jockey Mike Earl Smith is this week's Tuff as Nails choice after piloting the gifted racehorse Justify to the winner's circle for the second time in two weeks. Justify's fifth start saw him remain undefeated through the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He now boasts earnings just shy of $3 million. He changed history as he rode Justify into the history books as the only horse since 1892 (Apollo) to win the Derby and the Preakness without running as a two-year-old.
"This week we veer from the bull riding and rodeo world to honor one of the world's great athletes' and someone I look up to personally and professionally, a rock star on the racetrack, a superstar rider who won his first race at age 16, but who recently won the 2018 Kentucky Derby and on Sunday - the Preakness. On June 9, he launches his bid to win the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes.
"He is a 52-year-old in a sport where youth, comparable to bull riding, is tough to compete against, you have to be in the best shape physically and mentally and it just doesn't happen much. There are guys that have ridden at that age, but it's a short list. Nothing comparable to what Mike's accomplished,"
Hedeman describes Smith as a once in a lifetime gifted athlete with the one quality that separates him from the rest – Desire.
"I have watched him master the horse skills, develop the innate ability to read and react therefore helping the horse, not hurting his performance – that is not an accident. He is flawless in every part of the job. He understands the two biggest challenges of a racetrack – timing and finesse," continues Hedeman.
"The other coolest thing about Mike Smith is you wouldn't know he's who he is by the way he presents himself – he's great with fans, celebrities, the media - just everyone. Sunday after the race we were going to eat with his fiancé and his aunt and he's responding to the 500 plus congratulation messages on his phone. I promise he returned every one of them – now that's tough as nails!"
Tuff and Mike got to be friends after sharing a common upbringing on the racetrack with both their father's career in racing.
"We both started doing well at about the same time, Mike was 16 and I was 18. I followed his career and over the years he came to the NFR, we stayed friends and we reconnected one year at the Espy's Awards event and have been great friends and stayed in touch. After my children graduated, I have been able to make it to the Debry, Preakness and Belmont races in recent years.
Mike Smith is a highly decorated Hall of Fame jockey winning his 5,000th victory of his Hall of Fame career in 2012. He is not only one of the highest earning jockeys and winningest jockeys in history but he exemplifies and represents the sport according to the 2014 Lafitte Pincay Jr. Award. Recipients are given the award for having served the sport of horse racing "with integrity, extraordinary dedication, determination, and distinction."
"When we started this award back in 2004, Mike Smith was absolutely the sort of person we had in mind as one of our winners," Pincay said.
Mike Smith was born in Roswell, New Mexico, August 10, 1965. Smith began riding races in New Mexico at age 11. Shortly after launching his licensed career in 1982 at age 16 he won his first race in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
"Balance and physically getting in riding shape is the challenge of most athletes, but for a jockey, I mean when you look at the body of any jockey, they are the thinnest guys in the world," continued Hedeman.
Hedeman explains firsthand what it was like to grow up in the racehorse industry like he and Mike Smith. With rock star racehorse jockeys and fathers who prepared and handled both the riders and the horses, their boyhood heroes were the stars of the show.
"When I was an 8-year-old kid I was always at the racetrack with my Dad who was a valet, the person responsible for preparing both jockey and horse for racing. As a teenager, I was 5'4 and weighed 110 pounds and thought I was going to be a jockey, one of the 'Cool Guys'. We looked up to them, they were the exciting guys at the track. It's pretty exciting to be around them, they were the ones with the best sports cars, sunglasses, hot girlfriends - everything. We looked up to them"
As a teenager, Tuff began breaking and galloping horses at Sunland Park Racetrack in New Mexico, just miles from his hometown of El Paso, Texas he was developing skills that aided his future career choice of pro bull riding that required many of the same skills, balance, instinct, and the ability to react.
"I would love to have been able to ride races, but by the time I had enough experience I got too big, I was 135 pounds." 108 – 118 pounds is standard for jockey weight.
Tuff will join his friend Mike Smith in New York for the Belmont Stakes as he attempts to change history. Read the rest of the story including Tuff's comparison to bulls and racehorses at https://www.tuffhedemanbullriding.com/
Leigh Ann Schroeder