ELMONT, N.Y. – There's a reason Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith is in demand when owners and trainers pick riders for the elite in thoroughbred racing.
The 52-year-old just knows what to do aboard a horse.
When to move it. When to take back. When to let it have its way on the track. When to go to the whip.
Take Saturday, for example. Smith faced the pressure of helping Justify take that final step to become the sport's 13th Triple Crown winner.
The world was watching Belmont Park to cheer for the chestnut colt, who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness after not racing as a 2-year-old. The pressure was intense, and "Big Money Mike" reacted like a veteran — he took a nap during the long 13-race card.
It worked to perfection, as Smith put an exclamation point on his illustrious career.
"I felt great, and that probably wouldn't have happened 10 years ago or 20 years ago," Smith said. "I'd have been probably running through a wall or something."
In sweeping the big three races for 3-year-olds, Smith becomes the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. It's the pinnacle of a career that has seen him win more than 5,400 races, including a record 26 in the Breeders' Cup, and now seven Triple Crown races. His mounts have earned more than $310 million.
Not bad for a kid who dropped out of high school to become a jockey.
"I think my mother's happy now," said Smith, whose early career began at what was then Canterbury Downs in Shakopee from 1985 to '88. "She's all right, she's OK with it now."
This was another perfect ride. Breaking from the less-than-desired No. 1 post, Smith gunned Justify to the lead and never looked back.
"Mike great, obviously, and Justify is probably a great horse," said trainer Bill Mott, whose Hofburg finished third. "I mean, they're a good combination and they got the job done. We saw another Triple Crown winner."
Smith is at the top of his game in a sport in which jockeys in their 50s are becoming rarer. He won 15 Grade 1 races last year, including nine with trainer Bob Baffert.
What's ahead for Smith remains to be seen. He has reduced his riding schedule in recent years to concentrate on riding the sport's best horses. Riding Justify has taken him to a new level.
The way things went this year, don't be surprised to see Smith riding another good one in next year's Triple Crown races.