Kentucky Derby Jockey Profile: Mike Smith

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 26th, 2021

Who is Mike Smith?

Ask any horse racing fan to compile a list of North America’s all-time greatest jockeys, and chances are Mike Smith will feature prominently in the rankings.

The 55-year-old from New Mexico has partnered with some of racing’s most legendary horses since picking up his first official victory in 1982. Winner of the 1993-94 Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Jockey, Smith has guided Horses of the Year Holy Bull (1994), Azeri (2002), Zenyatta (2010), and Justify (2018) to career-defining victories. He’s won 220 Grade 1 races, more than any other North American jockey. He’s won 26 Breeders’ Cup races, the most by any rider in history. And he’s won half a dozen Triple Crown races, most notably sweeping the spring classics aboard Justify in 2018.

Through the years, Smith has overcome adversity to remain at the top of his game. A couple of significant injuries in 1998 derailed his momentum, but Smith soon rebuilt. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003, upset the 2005 Kentucky Derby (G1) aboard 50-1 shot Giacomo, and gradually developed a quality-over-quantity approach to riding that has produced over 100 graded stakes wins since 2016.

At least some of Smith’s success can be attributed to the fact he’s an undisputed star riding 1 1/4 miles on dirt, the conditions of the Kentucky Derby and many other prestigious prizes. Smith’s lifetime record under these conditions in North America stands at a phenomenal 54-for-266 (20%), and betting all of his mounts (including Derby winners Giacomo and Justify) would have produced a 12% profit.

Suffice to say, when Smith takes the mount in a major dirt race—particularly those over 1 1/4 miles—it’s wise to sit up and take notice. For the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Smith has picked up the mount on Midnight Bourbon, runner-up in the Louisiana Derby (G2) winner. Midnight Bourbon will mark Smith’s record-breaking 27th mount in the "Run for the Roses."

What are Jockey Mike Smith's Records related to the Kentucky Derby?

Below are statistics for Smith's efforts at race tracks with more than two Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races, plus lifetime data at the 1 1/4 mile distance and Churchill Downs specifically.

Lifetime record over 1 1/4 miles on dirt:

Starts Wins Places Thirds
266 54 41 27
  Win % ITM % ROI %
  20% 46%


Lifetime record in the Kentucky Derby:

Starts Wins Places Thirds
26 2 4 1
  Win % ITM % ROI %
  8% 27% 112%

Lifetime record stats compiled by Ed DeRosa and are through 2020.

All stats from Jan. 1, 2016 through April 20, 2021. Generated by STATSMASTER, Powered by TrackMaster, an Equibase Company

In advance of the Kentucky Derby, let’s review Smith’s record riding on dirt at a handful of major tracks since 2016:

Smith at Aqueduct

During the 1990s, Smith was based in New York and won a bevy of important stakes at Aqueduct, including three editions of the Wood Memorial (G2). Though no longer a regular presence at Aqueduct, Smith has ridden three races over the Aqueduct dirt since 2016, picking up a graded win aboard Marley’s Freedom in the 2018 Go for Wand H. (G3).

Smith at Churchill Downs

Riding big days at Churchill Downs has reaped great dividends for Mike Smith. In addition to his Kentucky Derby titles, Smith is a two-time winner of the Kentucky Oaks (G1), guiding Princess of Sylmar (2013) and Abel Tasman (2017) to stretch-running victories. Since 2016, Smith has gone 5-for-32 (16%) over the Churchill Downs main track, a solid win rate for a jockey based outside of Kentucky.

Smith at Gulfstream Park

Back in the 1990s, Mike Smith was a regular presence at Gulfstream Park. He won the Florida Derby (G1) three times from 1994-96, and ranked as the track’s leading jockey by wins in 1994. Since 2016, Smith has only ridden half a dozen races at Gulfstream, but he did pick up another Grade 1 when guiding Arrogate to victory in the 2017 Pegasus World Cup (G1).

Smith at Keeneland

Smith hasn’t had the best luck from limited rides at Keeneland over the last five years, going 0-for-11. But this is a little deceptive; in 2015, Smith won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) aboard Songbird and finished second in the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) aboard Effinex, so a lucrative day fell just outside the cutoff for our statistics.

Smith has also enjoyed strong historical success at Keeneland, winning the Blue Grass (G2) in 1993 and 1994, plus three editions of the Ashland (G1) and two renewals of the Spinster (G1). In 1994, Smith ranked as the leading rider at the Keeneland spring meet.

Smith at Oaklawn Park

Smith’s 7-for-24 (29%) record at Oaklawn since 2016 is impressive, but it pales in comparison to his lifetime record of graded stakes wins over the Arkansas oval. He’s won the Arkansas Derby (G1) three times, including in 2019 with Omaha Beach. He’s won the Rebel (G2) four times, and the Southwest (G3) once. He’s nabbed seven Apple Blossom H. (G1) titles, including two aboard the legendary Zenyatta. He’s won the Oaklawn H. (G2) twice, the Fantasy (G3) three times, the Honeybee (G3) once, the Azeri (G2) twice, the Bayakoa (G3) once, and the Count Fleet Sprint H. (G3) twice.

Impressively, all of those races (excepting the Count Fleet) are contested over one mile or farther, reiterating Smith’s skill at riding two-turn dirt races.

Smith at Santa Anita

Few jockeys have ridden the Santa Anita main track with greater aplomb than Mike Smith. His 31% win rate since 2016 includes a seemingly countless number of graded stakes triumphs. At the 2016 Breeders’ Cup, Smith nabbed a lucrative triple, winning the Dirt Mile (G1) and Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) before claiming the 1 1/4-mile Classic (G1) aboard champion Arrogate. But one of Smith’s most significant wins came aboard Justify in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby (G1), which qualified the future Triple Crown winner to compete in the Run for the Roses.

Smith has actually won the Santa Anita Derby four times, including three in a row from 2018-20. He pulled off a similar triple in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita H. (G1), winning every edition from 2013-15. In the 2014 Santa Anita Handicap, Smith perfectly rationed the front-running speed of Game On Dude to defeat champion Will Take Charge in the stakes-record time of 1:58.17.