LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mike Smith's clean white and green silks were the most obvious indicator of how well the Kentucky Derby went for the Hall of Fame jockey aboard Justify.
Staying nearly spotless wasn't easy in pelting rain and on a muddy, crowded track. But Smith got Justify near the lead at the start and left the other horses to deal with the muck as the pair splashed to a 2 ½-length victory Saturday in the 144th Run for the Roses.
It was the second Derby victory for Smith, the New Mexico native whose early career included four successful years at what was then Canterbury Downs in Shakopee from 1985 to '88. He helped Justify improve to 4-0 and become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win without racing as a 2-year-old.
The 52-year-old Smith, known as "Big Money Mike" for his performance in big races, is the second-oldest Derby winner behind Bill Shoemaker, who rode Ferdinand in 1986 at age 54.
"Keeping riding horses like this and that'll keep you around a long time," he said.
Smith's career took off after leaving Minnesota in 1989. He was a Triple Crown winner for the first time in 1993, aboard Prairie Bayou at the Preakness. That year, Smith set a North American record with 62 stakes winners.
Smith was in a body cast following a 1998 spill at Saratoga, and in his rush to return he almost ruined his career, as it took him nearly two years to recover to full health. But he became a Kentucky Derby champion in his 12th attempt in 2005, aboard 50-1 longshot Giacomo.
That remained Smith's only Derby win until Saturday. He has 5,456 wins over his career.
"I have been blessed to be in this race so many times ," Smith said. "I'm more relieved right now than anything. I think later on I'll start getting excited as the days go on."
Smith is known as being one of the sport's healthiest riders and a keen tactician. That helps explain why trainer Bob Baffert chose Smith to ride Justify after breaking his maiden beneath Drayden Van Dyke, and why Baffert appeared so calm all week.
The rain and track made him 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."
Said Smith: "What happened today is what I have been daydreaming about all afternoon. 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."
Star Tribune staff writer Rachel Blount contributed to this report.