The personal stories from the five remaining Triple Crown jockeys - an exclusive look at their lives and most memorable moments in horse racing.
By Mandy Boggs, Kentucky Equestrian Directory 2021 Issue
Each year over twenty thousand Thoroughbred foals are born in North America purposefully bred with the dream of becoming a racing champion. Only thirteen of those foals over the past century and a half, have had what it takes to win what is known as “the Triple Crown”, three of the most prestigious and challenging races in North America.
In American Thoroughbred horse racing, there is no greater goal for anyone involved; breeders, owners, trainers, grooms, and the jockeys, than winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. Spanning five weeks starting the first Saturday in May, only the best 3-year-old colts and fillies can take their shot over three different tracks, all with varying lengths, to see if one of them has what it takes to seize the Crown.
Today there are only five living Triple Crown-winning jockeys, claiming this pinnacle achievement in racing. Before Ron Turcotte and Secretariat won in 1973, it had been 25 years since Citation (Eddie Arcaro) won the Triple Crown in 1948. Jean Cruguet (Seattle Slew 1977) and Steve Cauthen (Affirmed 1978) followed in Secretariat’s emblazed path with their own inspiring feats, before a 37-year span left the Triple Crown trophies collecting dust again. Victor Espinoza and American Pharoah shattered that 37-year gap in 2015 with Mike Smith following close behind on Justify in 2018.
Horse racing has been around since Ancient Rome, further developing in Europe during the 18th century. Racing in North America began sweeping the country in 1665, in New York. In 1868, the American Stud Book was created, a clear sign that horse racing would become more than just a test of a few fast horses; an entire industry was beginning to take shape. By 1750 the Jockey Club (Europe) was established, setting rules and standards for the sport, with The Jockey Club of the United States and Canada following suit in 1894.
Early races, including those in North America, would often have just two horses running against each other to determine who had the fastest horse. These races were run down streets, through towns, on farms, and eventually, on racetracks, albeit primitive in comparison to the tracks we have today. Grandstands were built as crowds began to gather at these events, farms began to form entire business models around breeding, raising, and training Thoroughbreds, and the general public started placing their bets. The “Sport of Kings” was here to stay.
Ron Turcotte - Secretariat - 1973
Ron Turcotte was born in New Brunswick, Canada in 1941, a month after Whirlaway claimed the Triple Crown. Being one of 14 children, he grew up around horses and hard work. “I was around horses all of my life. My job was hauling logs with my father; we had a bobsled in the winter, bringing the logs through the yard from the forest, hauling them over to the river. We hitched the horses up as singles or teams,” Turcotte shared. “I had to learn from an early age how to take care of the horses, from getting up early to feed them before I had my own breakfast, to being a blacksmith, I had to do everything. The horses always came first. My dad was a very good horseman, I learned my horsemanship from him and am very proud of that. He also taught me that horses are like us. They each have their own likes and dislikes and you often can get more from a horse by getting to know them first.”
“I had to learn from an early age how to take care of the horses, from getting up early to feed them before I had my own breakfast, to being a blacksmith, I had to do everything. The horses always came first."
Turcotte left home when he was 18, looking for work in Toronto before he found himself starting as a hot-walker and groom in 1959, eventually being recognized for his knowledge of horses and good work ethic. He started galloping horses each morning. “When I started galloping horses you had to start from the bottom. I had to work hard, learn to gallop a horse, and prove myself,” said Turcotte.
Those early rides soon earned him racing silks, and almost as quickly as he started competing in races, the wins started coming. Crediting his horsemanship and innate ability to really connect with each individual horse and not just ride the race, he became an apprentice jockey, quickly getting matched with better and better horses. By the end of 1962, Turcotte was the leading rider in Canada with rides on the current Horse of the Year, Crafty Lace. In 1963, he was the regular jockey for Canadian-bred Northern Dancer, piloting him to his first win. Together they won the Coronation Futurity, the biggest stakes race for two year-olds in Canada, and won the title of Two-Year-Old Champion in Canada. By fall of 1963, he was so far ahead of the second leading jockey, he had already assured himself the title for his second year in a row. He left Canada to try his luck in the U.S., proving that he could compete with American riders. He quickly became leading rider in both Maryland and Delaware, where he picked up the mount on Tom Rolfe. A Preakness Stakes win on Tom Rolfe in 1965 quickly moved him up the U.S. and Canadian leader-boards as a jockey. With a leading rider title at every track Turcotte had raced at, he soon found himself in New York. Lucien Laurin, trainer for the famed Meadow Stable, shared Turcotte’s same French-Canadian accent, and soon had him riding his horses at the request of Penny Chenery, breeder and owner of Secretariat and stablemate, Riva Ridge. In 1972, Turcotte rode Riva Ridge to victory at the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
“I used to hear at the racetrack things like, ‘Oh, that horse has the brain the size of a pea’, and I would get so mad I couldn’t help but talk back! Of course, I wouldn’t get to ride for that guy (trainer) for a few days,” he chuckled. “They are more intelligent than you realize. That was me, I love horses and cannot find much fault in them. Some don’t have the same ability as the others, some can be more stubborn, but if you coach them, they will all come around and try.”
Turcotte paid close attention to each horse he rode. He liked to be around them and noticed how they felt, what they liked, and how to keep them wanting to perform. If a horse felt a little “off”, even as slight as swishing its tail in agitation, he would let the trainers know. Often this could catch an injury or problem before it became a bigger issue. This trait seemed to pay off, as often horses that other jockeys struggled with, Turcotte never had a problem riding, or winning on them. Some trainers appreciated his close observations, others brushed him away, telling him to just do his job and ride. With horses that had a reputation for being rogue or difficult to ride, he would look like he was out for an afternoon stroll, not understanding where the disconnect was with some of the other riders or jockeys. Many would argue that, while Secretariat was the greatest racehorse of all time, it seems almost inconceivable to imagine anyone other than Ron Turcotte as the jockey piloting him to greatness.
Riva Ridge and Ron with groom, Eddie Sweat, 1972.
Secretariat was as brilliant as a horse can be, standing 16.2 hands, his copper coat enhanced by nearly flawless conformation and a stature that demanded attention anywhere he went. The colt was known for his intelligence, and kind, yet playful, demeanor. Turcotte recalls that he was always relaxed on race days, sometimes not even breaking much of a sweat after the race. He loved to eat and take naps. He never misbehaved, even as a young horse, in a way that many racehorses are notorious for when their excitement and energy grow on race day. The crowds never bothered him, as he loved the attention. Turcotte genuinely loved everything about Secretariat from being around him in the barn, to being on his back, as they appeared to almost float around the track. Turcotte rode Secretariat in all but three of his 21 career starts, breaking track records and making history every step of the way.
“I always said, to win the Triple Crown you need a horse that can go any distance, be placed anywhere in the race, and will relax. He has to be able to run on any kind of track, muddy, sloppy, or fast,” explained Turcotte. “In 1972, on Riva Ridge, I likely would have won the Triple Crown with him had he been able to handle the mud. He was the best 3-year-old in the country that year, but when the rain came on Preakness day, I knew he wouldn’t do it. Secretariat was a horse that could do all of those things.” Turcotte always felt that, as Secretariat’s overshadowing veil of stardom cast itself over the entire country, it also concealed the authentic greatness of stablemate, Riva Ridge; a 3-year-old every bit as deserving of admiration for his greatness, even despite missing the middle jewel of the Crown for himself.
On May 5, 1973, a crowd of over 130,000 filled Churchill Downs in Kentucky, with Secretariat as the favorite, despite some chatter about Secretariat’s third place finish in his previous race, The Wood Memorial, later learning was the result of a painful abscess in his mouth. “I couldn’t figure out why he ran the way he did in the Wood Memorial until I heard about the abscess. I was so relieved when I learned about the abscess, knowing it would get better, and it did.
I knew we were going to win then. He felt good and took ahold of the bit in his workout leading up to the Derby,” said Turcotte. “Lucien didn’t seem as confident saying, ‘well he’s a Bold Ruler running 1¼ mile, no Bold Ruler runs that’, and I said don’t worry about the extra ¼ mile he will run as far as the race is!”
Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby by 2 ½ lengths, setting the track record with a brilliant performance. Two weeks later, at the Preakness Stakes in Maryland, Secretariat won again by 2 ½ lengths, breaking the record at Pimlico as well. “I noticed other riders were taking hold of their horses, waiting for me, thinking I was going to ride like I did in the Derby. I wheeled him to the outside and let him go. I went from last to first and took control of the race around the first turn. I could have won by another 10 lengths if I wanted to. It was that easy for him,” he reminisced.
Victor Espinoza (left), Jean Cruguet, Leonard Lusky, and Ron Turcotte (front), together at the Belmont Stakes, 2018.
“At Belmont, I wasn’t worried about the 1½ mile distance because of how he pulled up at the end of his races, and when I worked him, running was like playing for him. He just loved running and I let him do what he wanted. I never fought with him,” Turcotte explained, “the Saturday before the Belmont he worked faster than he had run the Derby.” Secretariat took an early lead in the Belmont before breaking into his signature long stride of over 25 feet, never needing the whip, galloping past every record ever set at Belmont, winning by an unprecedented 31 lengths, in world record time.
“I told Lucien that day, you are going to see something you’ve never seen before, but I didn’t think it would be a win by 31 lengths!” chuckled Turcotte. Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. His Belmont win, to this day, is still regarded as the greatest horse race in history. Secretariat went on to run six more times before retiring to stud, adding the Arlington Invitational, Marlboro Cup, Man o’ War Stakes, and the Canadian International to his impressive resume of wins. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in both the U.S. and Canada, won five Eclipse Awards, Horse of the Year as both a two and three-year-old, has numerous statues in his honor, including one in the center of Turcotte’s hometown in Canada. “Big Red” still holds the track record for all three of his Triple Crown races.
Turcotte went on to win over 3,000 races during his career, winning the three races of the Triple Crown, twice each, among over 50 other prestigious races. He was the leading jockey for multiple years, Canadian Racing’s Man-of-the-Year in 1978, has had multiple Hall of Fame inductions, and received the honorable Order of Canada award in 1974.
His brilliant career was tragically cut short due to a racing accident in 1978 on Flag of Leyte Gulf at the start of a race held at Belmont Park. He was thrown during an accident, resulting in becoming paraplegic - never to walk or ride again. Heartbreaking, not only to Turcotte, but to everyone that had followed his career, his fans, and those close to him. He has been able to overcome the initial difficult emotions he experienced with such a life-changing injury, finding a way to still enjoy his life and passion for horse racing, while continuing to share it with others. “I woke up in the hospital after the operation with no anger, just as a changed person. I became more patient, nicer to everybody. I had a very supportive family and just went through life taking it one day at a time,” shared Turcotte.
Turcotte retired from racing, going back to Drummond, New Brunswick, Canada, to a farm he purchased many years ago. He and his wife, Gaëtane, raised four daughters. While Turcotte circled back to his roots, this time, however, rather than cutting down trees, he plants them. He has planted over 300,000 trees on his property over the years, appreciating the beauty of nature and the home it gives to the wild animals.
“I had a very good career; I’ve ridden some really good horses. I always stayed confident in myself and most importantly in my horses,” shared Turcotte, “I am lucky I am still here today. I did get hurt and couldn’t ride anymore, that is what I miss the most. I am still enjoying life, have made a lot of trips to the racetrack over the years, and help raise money for the Jockeys’ Guild and the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund (PDJF).”
Turcotte has been praised by fellow jockeys and those that have known him over the years for his ongoing support of the racing industry, especially injured jockeys; attending charity events, signings, and offering not just encouraging words but being a true friend to many with his warm, positive outlook on life. Even just a few minutes talking with Turcotte feels as if you’ve known him your entire life. Penny Chenery remained friends with Turcotte for many years, never forgetting the remarkable journey they all went on together with Secretariat. He still remains good friends with many past jockeys, including Triple Crown-winning riders, Jean Cruguet and Steve Cauthen, whom he has attended events with on a regular basis over the years.
“I still watch those races on Secretariat and remember them like it was yesterday. I don’t know that there is a word to use to describe the feeling I have when I watch them. I had the original reels of those races. Anytime someone came over to the house they wanted to watch them. The reels faded away, or maybe I just wore them out myself,” he laughed.
“Secretariat is everything to me. He was special and so kind. He was even jealous, if I pet another horse, he would grab my coat and pull me back,” he laughed while reflecting on his memories. Turcotte speaks of Secretariat’s greatness anytime he is asked about winning the Triple Crown, often downplaying his own achievements, never one to discredit the partnership a jockey must have with their horse, or the talent a horse offers. “Nobody can carry a horse. They have to carry you.”
Jean Cruguet - Seattle Slew - 1977
Jean and Seattle Slew - iconic moment in sports history as he stands up in his irons, reaching for the sky, whip in hand, after winning the Triple Crown, 1977.
Jean Cruguet was born in 1939, in southwestern France near Toulouse and Bordeaux. With his mother already struggling to make ends meet and his father never returning from the war, Jean and his brother were dropped off at an orphanage. Five year-old Jean found himself rejected by his family and, seemingly, by everyone else around him. In the beginning he was treated kindly by the nuns at the orphanage, but by the time he was old enough for secondary school, and perhaps in part due to his short stature, he found himself an easy target for others’ torment and mistreatment. His life at the orphanage had become unbearable. Against all odds, and coupled with his lifelong determination to make something more of himself – “to be somebody someday”- Cruguet was able to find a way to ultimately parlay his physical attributes to become a Triple Crown-winning jockey.
“I would have done anything to be something special in my life,” said Cruguet. With tenacity, Cruguet began working at his grandfather’s small farm. By 16, he had begun working with horses at a neighboring farm and started riding horses for the first time in his life. He soon found himself with an opportunity to ride Thoroughbreds at a racetrack nearby, where he spent two years training at a farm with not much of a track to practice on, but he was able to live there and ride every day. His newfound purpose was interrupted when he was called to serve in the Algerian War with the French Army.
Focused on his unfailing perseverance to change the way his life had begun, Cruguet returned from the war and went back to the horses. In 1965, an Army friend contacted him about an opportunity with horses in Florida, all the way over in the United States. Cruguet knew very little English and did not know anyone there besides his friend, but went to America with hopes of changing his life.
“It was difficult for me as I did not know anyone and to make a living in racing you have to make a big name,” explained Cruguet, “my wife (Denyse Pendanx) said, yes, you must go, so I went to America. We were some of the first ones to come here from France, but it seemed like everyone followed me. I wanted to go back home but my wife said, no, stay here it will be worth it.”
Jean at 26 yrs. old after first arriving in the U.S. from his native France. In what his close friends jokingly refer to as the “Ralph Lauren” photo, he appears to be straight out of a RL equestrian photo shoot! Jean poses in front of the stable of Derby champion, Northern Dancer’s famous trainer, Horatio Luro. Luro trained many other great horses, which he allowed Jean to ride.
Cruguet’s wife, Denyse, was one of the first women jockeys and trainers in Europe, pioneering a path for women in the industry today. Cruguet attributes much of his own success to the guidance of his wife throughout his career. “She was a special woman, one in a million. We were together 47 years. I have always said if it weren’t for her, nobody would know me,” he shares. Cruguet began his career as most jockeys, having to work hard to get any races, competing amongst the better jockeys, and hoping that each decision made is the right one to get closer to being at the top of the jockey rankings. He admits a lot of his career seemed to include some good luck, but he worked very hard to get there.
In 1970, Cruguet got the ride on Triple Crown hopeful, Hoist the Flag, a horse he still declares to this day as the greatest racehorse he ever rode, and one he proclaimed would win the Kentucky Derby in 1971. In fact, Cruguet made it known that he had the best horse in the country and did not hesitate to prove it, not surprising due to his outspoken nature. At the Bay Shore Stakes, Angel Cordero Jr., riding Jim French, jokingly prodded Cruguet saying his horse was going to beat Hoist the Flag. “I said, ‘You can’t beat this horse!’ and I threw my whip on the side of the gate and told him I don’t even need the whip,” laughed Cruguet, clearly a memory he still enjoys to this day. “Angel said, ‘Jean you are crazy!’ but I won that race easy.” Easy it was, winning by seven lengths in a track record-breaking time of 1:21.
“He won a lot of big races. Every jockey’s dream is to win the Triple Crown and only a few jockeys have been able to do it. Cruguet belongs in the Hall of Fame.” - Ron Turcotte
Leading up to the Derby, the unbeatable colt and race favorite shattered a hind leg during a workout, nearly bringing Cruguet to his knees with grief knowing the world would not witness the greatness he knew this horse had. Cruguet fought back tears of emotion while Hoist the Flag’s owners quickly summoned the top veterinary surgeons to save the horse’s life, with no expense spared, a sentiment to just how special this horse was to so many. Over one thousand get well cards were sent to the colt, the owner answering every single one. The surgery, the first of its kind, saved his life allowing him to become a leading sire in North America. Knowing that the horse would never race again, Cruguet would wait another six years before his next true chance at a Triple Crown win.
For the next few years, Cruguet moved around the U.S. and often went back and forth to France, depending on where his career and opportunities took him. “We had great success in France, made good money, enjoyed life. I got a call from trainer, Billy Turner, about a young horse he wanted me to ride named Seattle Slew. I wasn’t very interested. My wife had a lot of confidence in the horse and said I had to take the ride, so I did.”
Seattle Slew started out as an awkward-looking colt, nicknamed, “Baby Huey”, by many for his clumsiness and unremarkable, mule-like appearance. During his career, however, he quickly proved everyone wrong, including Jean Cruguet, an ironic twist of fate as both Seattle Slew and his jockey were on their way to becoming a pair that nobody would ever forget. In 1976-1977 he was the U.S. Champion 2-year-old and 3-year-old colt, winning Horse of the Year in 1977.
Cruguet recalled how Seattle Slew was sensitive to the nearly deafening roar from fans in the crowd, as it echoed through the tunnel connecting the paddock to the track on the day of the Kentucky Derby. “He was so worked up, he got himself totally washed out in sweat before the race,” said Cruguet, making efforts in the other legs of the Triple Crown to keep him away from the crowds as much as possible.
In May of 1977, Cruguet and Seattle Slew left the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby with a tumultuous start, knocking into the steel and slamming into the horse next to him as if a reflection of Cruguet’s own rough start in life. Completely blocked by the horses in front of them, Cruguet took a chance, one he knew would cause either a win, or be one of the greatest risks he had ever taken resulting in certain failure, he barged Seattle Slew through a slender opening with just a split second to succeed. A move considered by those watching as guaranteed to use up the horse’s stamina too early in the race, both Cruguet and Seattle Slew proved the critics wrong, with an impressive victory by nearly two lengths. “Sometimes you have to make a move first and take a chance, just hope that it pays off,” he explained. “Most jockeys stay still, but if you always stay still, then before you know it, you’ve lost the race. There is only one Derby, you don’t get that many chances so sometimes you just have to take it.” Cruguet was able to harness the horse’s amplified muscle and force on the track in a way that even his trainer, Billy Turner, acknowledged; Cruguet was the ideal rider for Seattle Slew, being absolutely fearless in the saddle.
Two weeks after the Derby, Seattle Slew went on to win the Preakness Stakes by 1½ lengths, after Cruguet eased up down the stretch for an easy win. Cruguet now realizing he had a real chance at winning the Triple Crown, he just had to keep the horse focused and continue believing in himself that he could claim the title. In the weeks before the Belmont Stakes, Seattle Slew was so strong in his workouts they would have to pull up early with fear that the exercise rider would not be able to control him. His stamina proved to be accurate and he went on to win the Belmont by four lengths, over a muddy track, becoming the 10th Triple Crown winner and the only horse to earn the title with an undefeated race record, until Justify duplicated the feat in 2018. Cruguet had done it. Over 70,000 people knew his name and were cheering for him in a euphoric moment that even he himself could hardly contain. As he crossed the wire, Cruguet stood in his irons, thrusting his arm triumphantly over his head, his whip pointed toward the sky, sharing his joy not only with the fans present that day, but with the entire world. That photo has become an iconic piece of history, creating a tradition amongst many jockeys who, after winning prestigious races, will often be seen reaching skyward, celebrating their victory.
Jean Cruguet, who rode Seattle Slew in 1977, made a cameo appearance on another Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, at Churchill Downs, 2015.
After a long career as both a historic racehorse and one of the most influential breeding sires in America, with over 100 stakes-winning offspring, including champion A. P. Indy, Seattle Slew died peacefully in his sleep at his farm in Lexington, KY. His death, as if poetic, occurred exactly 25 years to the day that he won the Kentucky Derby.
Cruguet retired from racing in the mid 1990’s. He had over 2,400 career wins in the U.S. and another 450+ wins across Europe, as the leading jockey in France. With numerous impressive accomplishments over his 40-year career, from the dirt to the turf, all across the globe. Cruguet was often surpassed in popularity by American jockeys, with many fans left questioning his absence in the Hall of Fame, even after his Triple Crown win. Ron Turcotte shared his admiration for Cruguet when reflecting about his fellow jockeys that have earned their name on the Crown. “Jean Cruguet was a very tough jockey,” said Turcotte. “He won a lot of big races. Every jockey’s dream is to win the Triple Crown and only a few jockeys have been able to do it. Cruguet belongs in the Hall of Fame,” Turcotte states emphatically.
For many years Cruguet and his wife ran a successful training stable. Eventually moving to Kentucky, Cruguet stayed busy attending various appearances and fundraiser events, making trips to the racetrack to watch the horses train, visit old friends, and place his bets. His wife, Denyse, had become ill and suffered a massive stroke in 2003. Cruguet devoted the years that followed to caring for his beloved wife in their home during her illness, keeping her out of a nursing home, before she sadly passed away in 2010. Over the years, Cruguet has been known to hop up on a horse here and there, even sitting on American Pharoah for a few minutes in 2015, before the horse went out for a morning gallop, a little over a week after the horse had just won the Triple Crown.
Jean and Billy Turner, trainer of Seattle Slew, pose in front of the famed “Barn 54”, known for being Slew's Belmont home. Photo taken by LuAnne Cruguet.
In 2018, at an event honoring legendary African- American jockeys, one poignant story left the crowd speechless, some even with goosebumps, as if a rush of cold air had swept throughout the room. The story was that of Jimmy Winkfield, Hall of Fame jockey and horse trainer, told by Churchill Downs’ Communications V.P., John Asher. His unmistakable voice filled the room as he painted a picture of Winkfield’s captivating rag-to-riches tale. Born into a sharecropping family in Kentucky, Winkfield’s career as a jockey progressed into one that now decorates the walls of racing museums.
As the details of his story concluded, Asher spoke of how two champion jockeys in France shared an unbeknownst and deep friendship, both men coming from humble beginnings, and rising to overcome life’s obstacles with a profound strength to prosper. A collective gasp echoed through the room when Asher stated that one of those men was sitting amongst them, many looked confused knowing Winkfield died in 1974. He asked if that man would stand up.
Jean Cruguet quietly rose from his seat, to even his wife’s surprise, as everyone in the room gave him a standing ovation. Cruguet had never mentioned that Winkfield was one of his most treasured friends; a friendship which began instantly upon first meeting at the Maisons- Laffitte Racecourse in Paris in 1971. When asked by his wife how that sort of detail just slips one’s mind, Cruguet just shrugged it off with a smile. While being a man known for speaking his mind on the track, those who know him often share their high regard for the tough and humble jockey that is Jean Cruguet.
Cruguet, 82, currently resides outside of Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, LuAnne, where they breed and raise Thoroughbreds. He still enjoys his morning walks and jogs, an established regimen from his days as a jockey. An avid handicapper, he relaxes by reading The Daily Racing Form, and watching the latest races. Cruguet enjoys being an ambassador for the industry, attending various appearances and signings to help raise funds for non-profit organizations.
Steve Cauthen - Affirmed - 1978
Steve Cauthen (pink silks) on Affirmed, Jorge Velasquez (red silks) on Alydar, Eddie Maple (green silks) on Believe It - Kentucky Derby, 1978.
Just six days after Steve Cauthen was born in a Northern Kentucky town, 13 horses left the starting gate in the 86th running of the Kentucky Derby, on May 7, 1960. The thunderous roar of the race may have even echoed its way to his crib that day. Under a cloudy sky, a brilliant chestnut colt named Venetian Way won the race, ridden by Hall of Fame jockey, Bill Hartack. Ironically, both Hartack and Steve Cauthen would fill newsstands 20 years apart, each dressed in the same flamingo pink-colored silks. In 1978, Cauthen became the 11th Triple Crown winner on a chestnut colt named Affirmed.
With his father, “Tex”, working as a blacksmith (later becoming a member of the International Horseshoeing Hall of Fame), and his mother, Myra, balancing training horses along with raising three boys, Cauthen grew up on a large farm with a love of horses from the very beginning. He started breaking the young horses on the farm while he himself was still just a child. Attributing his love of horses, confidence, and deep understanding of how to work with them to his father, Cauthen credits his mother with his competitiveness and athletic ability, appreciating how both parents molded him into the horseman, husband, and father he is today.
“As a kid, not only did I love the horses, but I was also really into sports. I was small but strong for my age and quick on my feet. In 7 th grade I decided to join a Pee Wee football league. I was fast, but I think maybe weighed 72 lbs. and the fullback was 140 lbs. I started realizing after running for my life that I better start thinking about another sport,” Cauthen laughed.
Cauthen was inspired from reading books and magazines about horse racing and began thinking about becoming a jockey. Living in the horse racing capital of the world, it just seemed to be the logical choice in his mind. He asked his parents if he could give it a try. His mother, fearful of how dangerous the sport was, agreed with his father that he could give it a try, only if he promised to quit if maintaining weight became too difficult or dangerous to his health, and he had to keep up with his schoolwork. He was just 16 years old.
Cauthen was already 5’6” and 110 lbs., and still growing. With most U.S. jockeys’ heights ranging from 4’10”- 5’6’’, and weighing between 108-118 lbs, he was not naturally destined to be the same size. His father and his brothers, Doug and Kerry, were of average size, with heights ranging from 5’9’’- 5’11”, and bigger, stronger builds. His mother was petite, but the family knew once Cauthen got older, maintaining weight was going to be difficult. The clock was ticking, but Cauthen was not one to ever let the clock win.
His first race at River Downs was just twelve days after his 16th birthday. He finished last. One week later, his horse was first to cross the wire. Cauthen’s goal was to become the leading rider at the Ohio track. Almost as quickly as he set the goal, it was accomplished, establishing a new meet record. He began setting higher goals, conquering them before the ink could dry on his checklist. He studied races, jockeys, horses, and the tracks, from old racing films to watching them live any chance he had. It was common to find him practicing on bales of hay, perfecting his technique, position, or rotating his whip from left to right, as if nothing else in his life mattered more than being the absolute best.
In 1977, Cauthen became the first jockey to win over $6 million in one racing season, breaking the national record by over $1 million. He was the leading jockey in America with over 500 wins. Sports Illustrated named him the 1977 Sportsman of the Year, and still remains the only jockey or equestrian athlete to ever receive that award. He was 17 years old, still in high school, and at nearly every track he set foot upon, he broke records. It was only his first year as a jockey, and Steve Cauthen was regularly beating the best riders in the country.
“In the spring of 1977, I had a bad fall opening day at Belmont (New York). I was badly injured. I knew it was bad when I woke up in the hospital and my Mom was there. She lived in Kentucky,” he chuckled. “They told me I would be out for three months. Exactly a month from that day I was back on a horse. His name was Little Miracle. I didn’t know at the time, but he was actually a half-brother to Affirmed.”
By the summer, with Cauthen back in the game, Affirmed became available, and his trainer, Laz Barerra, was looking for a rider. “Affirmed was the smartest horse I have ever ridden,” said Cauthen. “He was almost semi-human. He liked attention, not just someone petting him, and he would almost look for the cameras. He had a lot of personality, anyone that truly knew him always talked about what a character he was. He didn’t like birds and used to run flat out to chase them out of his pasture.”
Like Cauthen, Affirmed kept his confidence and composure around big crowds, not letting the atmosphere, nor the murmurs about a budding rival, Alydar, divert his concentration. With the wave of success Cauthen immersed the country with, there was never any escape from fans, cameras, or the media. Every microphone and camera in the country seemed to be pointing at this young man, now referred to as, “The Kid”.
"I did not want to be the one that made that mistake and cost us the race. Being so young, I didn't want anyone to say 'Well, they should have never had a little kid on that horse."
“I had just received three Eclipse Awards, I was winning a lot of races, hard races, against the best jockeys in the country. I felt like I did belong. I was winning on other horses all year, not just Affirmed, so I went into the Derby confident I could win,” shared Cauthen. “However, I was aware of how good Alydar was. He was on the East Coast winning by 6, 8, 10 lengths. In the back of my mind the only thing I was worried about was if he improved more than my horse. We were on separate coasts, so it worked in our favor that we didn’t have to meet Alydar until the day of the races.”
Cauthen was preparing for the biggest race of his career. A career that was just six days short of two years, the day the Kentucky Derby ran on May 6, 1978. “I went into the Derby pretty excited. It was in my home state, my dad had fifty-some people asking to get tickets to the race. He told me if I ever ride in the Derby again, he’s never getting people tickets again,” he laughed. “Growing up we always went down to watch the Derby from the backside (barn area). We didn’t realize how hard it was to actually get tickets to the Derby. Two nights before the race, my parents got a hotel room close to the track for us to stay in. The only room they could get had two twin beds. The first night, which was before The Oaks, I slept in one of the beds. The night before the Derby, my brothers said ‘Hey! You got the bed last night!’, so I actually slept on the floor the night before I won the Kentucky Derby.”
Affirmed defeated ten other horses in the Kentucky Derby, beating his rival, Alydar, by 1 ½ lengths. Cauthen was the youngest jockey to ever ride in the Kentucky Derby, at 17 years of age (just one week shy of his 18th birthday), let alone to win the race. “I remember looking over after I won the Derby, and my little brother, Kerry, was right in front of a huge crowd of all these photographers with big cameras, holding this little Kodak camera taking pictures,” he chuckled. “He was seven or eight years old at the time. We were at a party later that night celebrating, standing next to Mr. Wolfson (owner and breeder of Affirmed) when he said, ‘Kerry, we sure are proud of your brother, he did a great job for us today,’ and my brother said, ‘Mr. Wolfson, anyone could have won on your horse today.’”
The excitement from the Derby win quickly passed with a focus on the upcoming Preakness Stakes. “Affirmed was working great between races and was tactically superior to Alydar. He liked to be on the outside, so I had the advantage going into that race, and with fewer horses, I knew there was a good chance I would end up setting the pace,” said Cauthen. That is precisely what happened. Affirmed set the pace and dueled with Alydar, winning by a neck. They just had one more race to go to win the Triple Crown.
Steve and his wife, Amy, with their beloved miniature donkeys who reside at their Dreamfields Farm, Lexington, Kentucky. Photo courtesy of Steve Cauthen.
“I’ve said it many times before, those three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes were the longest three weeks of my life,” shared Cauthen. “It doesn’t really sink in that you have a chance to do something historic. It only takes one mistake that can give the other jockeys an upper hand. I did not want to be the one that made that mistake and cost us the race. Being so young, I didn’t want anyone to say ‘Well, they should have never had a little kid on that horse.’”
The day of the Belmont Stakes, Cauthen was oddly calm, confident, and focused. Once he had the leg-up onto Affirmed and gripped the reins between his fingers, the chaos of the day seemed to disperse. “You think to yourself, check the girth, check this, do your normal routine and just get things done,” he explained. “I had a good plan going into the race. I wanted to hold Affirmed a bit and was able to do that, getting Alydar to challenge us. I looked over at "Georgie" (Alydar’s jockey, Jorge Velasquez) and thought, go ahead. I knew he didn’t want to, and I didn’t want the inside. We just kept looking at each other down the stretch, head-to-head. I could feel Affirmed was starting to feel a little fatigued. That is when I tapped him left-handed for the first time ever with the whip. It surprised him, and he won by a head. It might have been by about 4 inches! It was the greatest race I have ever ridden.”
Cauthen has been praised for staying humble, even during the intense media attention as a kid, recognizing his parents and family for instilling those values in him during a time that many would have crumbled under the pressure that came with being in the headlines, and frankly, a heartthrob to many young women at the time. If anyone could attract a new crowd of fans to the sport of horse racing, it was Steve Cauthen. Every set of eyes in America was looking at Cauthen. If he was not being interviewed or asked to make an appearance on TV, his photos and critique of every move were published in a newspaper.
Almost as quickly as Cauthen reached the top of the sport, the clouds keeping him aloft simply vanished, dropping him to the ground, quickly forgetting he was just a teenager. It was almost as if a curse had been placed on a young man that seemed unstoppable. Beginning in the summer of 1978, Cauthen went into an extended slump, losing over one hundred consecutive races. The media was ruthless and cruel. “Boos” began to echo down the rail, quickly catching him as he trailed behind in each race. His fans and friends who once greeted him with enthusiasm and kindness, stopped making eye contact. It was uncomfortable not just for Steve Cauthen, but for the entire country. It was as if the world forgot he was still human.
Steve with his daughters, admiring Affirmed. Photo courtesy of Steve Cauthen.
As Cauthen struggled with his streak of bad luck, the effort it took to stay at the low weight required for a jockey in America proved to be a harsher obstacle to overcome. His body was morphing from that of a teenager into a young man, now 5’6’’ tall, and still growing. He was offered an opportunity in Europe, where higher weights were allowed for jockeys, giving him the chance to continue his career without significantly jeopardizing his health as he matured.
The career move proved to be the right choice. With the media moving on to their next targets in the states, Cauthen began learning an entirely new world of horse racing. “Europe was so different. I had to really adjust and learn how they did things. I truly loved how they trained horses and realized pretty quickly that I would ride out the rest of my career there,” Cauthen explained. “You gallop across the countryside, hills, changing terrain, you could have 40-foot drops or the track higher on the outside. It was pretty amazing. I lasted 14 years over there before I finally got tired of fighting my weight and decided to come home.”
Cauthen never needed to prove his abilities to anyone but himself, and far surpassed what started out as a goal to be the leading jockey at his first racetrack. He won over 2,794 races during his career, winning both the Triple Crown in the U.S. and 10 of the top classic races in Europe in 1985. He’s the only jockey to win both the Kentucky Derby in the U.S. and the Epsom Derby, known as “The Derby”, in England, Britain’s most prestigious and richest horse race. He won countless races in Great Britain, France, Ireland, Italy, and of course, the United States. He was inducted into the U.S. Hall of Fame and National Museum in 1994, along with earning the British Champion Jockey Award in 1984, 1985, and 1987.
Retiring in 1992, Cauthen bought a large farm in Verona, Kentucky, aptly named ‘Dreamfields’, where he has continued to live out his dream with horses, raising his three daughters with his wife, Amy. With two large barns on the property, one is quite special. “The original barn was actually my grandfather’s. We took it down brick by brick and rebuilt it here on my property. It saved me money at the time, but really it is a great memory,” Cauthen said.
He breeds, raises, and trains racehorses, along with a few resident retirees lucky enough to call Dreamfields home. He can be found doing most of the work himself, something he genuinely enjoys, with his well-loved dogs in tow, quickly leading him to the tack room where they know a bin of biscuits is waiting for them. The horses are just as loved, never running out of their large bag of “the good horse treats”, something Cauthen keeps around because “they really like them.” With hundreds of acres, he is always busy and can typically be found with the horses. His main barn is surrounded by an oval of recycled track footing, upon which he rides his young horses, while they learn how to become future racehorses at the hands of one of the greatest jockeys of all time. It is not uncommon for Cauthen, now 60 years old, to get on his horses while in training, going out for a gallop to get a feel of their potential, helping him make decisions on which of his horses might have what it takes to become a stakes winner. While preferring to use trainers with smaller programs for more individualized care, he lets the trainers do their job and tries to leave them be. “You don’t get a brain surgeon and tell them what to do,” he chuckled.
One of the barns on Steve's farm, a barn that was originally at his Grandfather's farm in Richwood, KY. They took the barn down block by block and rebuilt it at Dreamfields.
Humble, kind, and a genuine horseman, Cauthen is not what most would expect from an athlete with such an illustrious career. If you did not know who he was, you likely would never know of the endless awards and accolades filling the shelves of his office, with a desk overlooking his pastures. “For one thing, I enjoy it, but it’s also hard to find someone to do it the way I want. It’s not difficult work but you have to have a passion. A lot of this stuff is boring, takes a while, and takes patience,” shared Cauthen. “I have had the same guy with me for 36 years, he does the mowing, fixes the fence, holds horses, etc. I trim my own horses, something I learned from my dad, and do most of the work with the horses, getting them ready for training or the sales. I feel like I have a connection with them, I can get them handled better, help them have a good mouth and understand the right way to do things. It matters for the rest of their careers. I can’t do it all, but what I can do, I really enjoy.”
“I watch all types of sports, I can really appreciate high quality athletes in any sport. I also enjoy planting trees, gardening, pretending to be a farmer. I get a few tomatoes and think we’ve done well!” he laughed. When Cauthen is not with his horses, he spends time with his family, enjoying a more private life at a slower pace.
Victor Espinoza - American Pharoah - 2015
Growing up as the second youngest of eleven siblings, Victor Espinoza cultivated his competitive nature and work ethic beginning on the family farm in Hidalgo, Mexico. Born on May 23, 1972, just a year before Secretariat set unbeatable records during his Triple Crown victory, Espinoza adjusted from an early age to long days and hard work, helping his family take care of the crops, gardens, and assortment of animals - from dairy cows, goats, sheep, chickens, horses, donkeys, and even the occasional armadillo the kids would sneak into the house and raise as a pet.
“Growing up with eleven brothers and sisters, oh my gosh it was wild,” laughed Espinoza. “My schedule was full, from the early morning into the late night taking care of the animals and the farm. My brothers would play sports and act like brothers do, just have fun. My sisters, that was another story. I had to hear all about their problems, what they are going to do all day, their TV shows, and when they started getting boyfriends, if I didn’t listen to them and give my opinion, I got in trouble. You can’t give advice to one and not the other. It was crazy all the time but it was also a lot of fun when I look back. I really enjoyed that each sibling had different goals and views on life. We would talk about that a lot growing up.”
It took years for Espinoza to appreciate his early life, now looking back and admitting it was the best childhood that could have ever happened to him. “When I moved out of the house I couldn’t wait for a break. I can’t imagine now how my mother, who is 90 years old and still alive, did it. She is just amazing; I don’t know how she could deal with so many of us every day!” he said with a laugh. “The hardest part, honestly, waking all of us up every morning to go start chores. I am so grateful for how she raised us. We hardly ever got sick. We raised all of our own food and meat, it was all organic, drank water from our well, and my mother only went to the store every few weeks just to buy spices.”
Espinoza learned to ride, not on horses at first, but on donkeys. “I have always loved animals; my passion is animals. I used to teach the donkeys so many tricks. I would ride them without a bridle, just a stick and tap them to turn, or use my legs to go faster or slow down. I learned so much from the animals,” shared Espinoza. “Nobody in my family was in the racing business back then, it just sort of happened one day. I was 15 years old and started working with my brother, Jose, on a racing farm with Quarter Horses. The next thing I knew, I was becoming a jockey.”
At 17 years old, Espinoza began driving a bus in Mexico City to pay for jockey school. He moved to the U.S. in 1990, not speaking any English, with a dream as big as his family. Living in tack rooms in the stables, juggling school, workouts, and galloping horses, he was soon recognized for his efforts and became an apprentice rider. “I didn’t want to be just a jockey, I wanted to be the best jockey in the country. If I could not do that, then why would I even do it?” said Espinoza.
His first races went well, almost easy, he thought. He quickly learned that nothing about horse racing is effortless. “In the beginning my career went up and down, but then I couldn’t win another race. I thought ‘well, this isn’t good, maybe I am not good enough to be a jockey.’ But I never gave up, I worked harder and harder, and if things got too hard, I would just push myself and do more,” he said.
“I don’t know how or when exactly it happened, but all of a sudden, I started winning every race.”
Espinoza moved to Santa Anita, knowing the best jockeys in the country were there, with the toughest circle to break into. “I didn’t want to be stuck at the same level the rest of my career, if I can compete with the best then maybe I can become one of the best,” he explained. “I knew I would learn a lot by being around all of these top jockeys and riding against them trying to win. There was no ‘just go for a ride’, no matter what horse I was on, my goal was to win because second was not good enough for me. If I beat the best jockey today, I would think ‘okay, how do I also beat them tomorrow?’”
From 2000-2006 Espinoza dominated the tracks, winning countless races on many of the best horses in the country, riding for the best trainers, and beating the top jockeys. Almost as long as he rode the waves of success, the ocean dissipated, and Espinoza found himself run aground in the sand, trudging for the next three years to regain his winning streak.
Espinoza won the Derby and Preakness Stakes on War Emblem in 2002, but was still young and naïve, undervaluing the prestige and difficulty of the races. It was not until 2014, when he had his second chance at a Triple Crown sweep on the flashy chestnut, California Chrome, that he understood the amount of work, skill, and special talent a horse needs to win those races, and just how many jockeys chase this lifelong goal to even have a chance.
“I never knew how hard it was to win those races until I tried again, and again, and again. I failed so many times. To come back after all those years and win those races was pretty special,” he explained.
In 2014, Espinoza got the ride on American Pharoah, a small horse in a plain brown wrapper, known for his gentle nature. “To be honest, American Pharoah was kind of a boring horse to be around. He was always quiet, just standing around, not much personality, even before a race in the warmup he was just like okay, whatever,” chuckled Espinoza. “Riding him was different. Once he got into the gate, his mind changed. His body completely transformed into a different animal. Everything was so easy for him, the speed, power, endurance, just incredible. He’s probably the only horse I have ridden that I have ever experienced that feeling.”
On a warm day in May of 2015, American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby by a length, defeating the efforts of 17 other horses, with Espinoza crossing the wire, not thinking that he just won the Derby, but proclaiming that this was the year he was going to finally win the Triple Crown.
Two weeks later, under flooding downpours, thunder, and the anticipation of lightning causing the crowd of fans to be ushered to shelter, American Pharoah took an early lead in the Preakness Stakes while leaving his competitors almost unrecognizable, cloaked in mud, finishing ahead of them by seven lengths. Now, for the third time, Espinoza found himself on the threshold of winning the Triple Crown. Just three weeks stood between him and fulfilling the goal he spent 25 years chasing.
“Going into the Belmont, I wasn’t really nervous, but just very confident. This was my third chance at the Triple Crown so it was a different feeling. I was excited and ready to go. I looked at AP who looked outstanding, and said, ‘It’s just you and me buddy’,” he remembered. “I was going to use all of my skills that I have learned over the years, from all these jockeys, you know all the techniques I have taken from them,” he laughed. “This was the moment I needed to use all of that knowledge and use it on this horse. I told myself I could not blow it or I might as well quit.”
Rain submerged the ground the morning of the Belmont Stakes, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the 90,000 spectators waiting for what many still considered to be something only a miracle could pull off. It had been 37 years since any horse had won the American Triple Crown, the longest drought since it began in the 1800’s, with only 11 horses holding the title. Just hours before the horses began walking to the paddock, the clouds separated, while brilliant sunshine seemed as if it were there only to illuminate the path for Espinoza and American Pharoah, both of which were about to make history.
Starting in post No. 5, the same position Seattle Slew drew in his 1977 Belmont win, American Pharoah stalled coming out of the gate, eliciting an audible gasp from onlookers, fearing that was enough to seal his fate. “I just focused on my horse more than anything else. He was a little slow out of the gate but it just took two big steps and he took the lead early on. I was just enjoying the feeling, like walking in the sky. This was what I worked so hard for in my life,” shared Espinoza.
They led the entire race, the crowd’s roar accelerating them along, crossing the wire 5 ½ lengths ahead of Frosted, breaking the 37-year streak. Horse racing fans across the world cheered, many not thinking they would ever witness another Triple Crown winner in their lifetime. Espinoza, overcome with a mix of emotion and excitement, hugged the outrider that came to gather him and American Pharoah, leading them to the winner’s circle. Having trouble forming the right words to even describe the joy he felt, Espinoza credited his magnificent horse for the conquest.
Espinoza was the first Hispanic jockey to ever win the Triple Crown, and the first jockey to have three opportunities for a win. At 43 years old, a stark comparison to 18-year-old Steve Cauthen’s win 37 years prior as the youngest jockey to ever win the Triple Crown, Espinoza became the oldest jockey to win, keeping that record until Mike Smith claimed it in 2018.
Since the early 2000’s, Victor Espinoza has donated a portion of his earnings to the City of Hope in California, supporting pediatric cancer research. After winning the Belmont, he donated his entire share of earnings, estimated to be around $80,000.00, to the hospital.
Espinoza rode American Pharoah in every race, except for his very first, until the stallion was retired to stud in the fall of 2015, becoming the first horse to ever win the American ‘Grand Slam’: The Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Espinoza continues racing regularly, turning 49 this year, with over 3,400 wins and $204 million in race earnings to date. His career wins are impressive for any jockey, from a Hall of Fame induction in 2017 to an astounding list of American Classic and International wins, such as the Dubai World Cup in 2016. There will always be bigger goals and harder races to win in his mind. “Before, nobody wanted my autograph, that moment winning the Triple Crown everything changed,” laughed Espinoza. “Now I don’t even have time to write something for my many nieces and nephews. That is okay, celebrate these wins later, I always have work to do. I have to go beat more jockeys!”
Mike Smith - Justify - 2018
Mike Smith and Justify kept the lead throughout the race, sparing them both the mud bath their rivals took - Preakness Stakes win, 2018.
If there is one place where jockey, Mike Smith, has always felt he belonged, it would be on the back of a horse. He was born in 1965. His father, George was once a jockey himself, and his mother, Vidoll, was just nineteen at the time. Their young love ended in divorce, subsequently resulting in Smith spending his youth raised by his maternal grandparents on their horse farm just outside of Roswell, New Mexico. Smith lived and breathed horses as if a necessity in his life. From an early age he was surrounded by horses, working with them daily. When he was only eight years old he started helping break the young horses, and by age eleven, while Seattle Slew was winning the Triple Crown, Smith began riding match races in his native New Mexico. In 1982, when most teenagers are hoping to pass their driver’s test, then sixteen-year-old Smith received his jockey’s license, and began his professional career at Sante Fe Downs with his first win, along with riding at various tracks on the Midwestern circuit across Chicago, Omaha, and Hot Springs, Arkansas.
“I was really into sports as a kid and loved football, I just never grew big enough to do it,” he laughed. “My uncle trained horses and both grandparents owned them, so I had easy access to riding early on, getting to practice a lot more than most kids probably did. Right from the start, if I wasn’t breaking horses, I was teaching the babies how to lead, or doing 4H, rodeo, all kinds of things. I just loved it all.”
Watching Ron Turcotte and Secretariat on TV as a kid sparked the dream of becoming a professional jockey someday, coupled with his size and natural love for riding, it just made sense. “Honestly, I thought I was going to grow up, become a jockey, and win three Kentucky Derbies and two Triple Crowns. Why those numbers, I don’t know, it has just always been something I told myself,” said Smith.
By 1991, Smith had been the leading jockey in New York for three years in a row, and had also won the Irish 2000 Guinea (European) Classic. By 1993, he was known as a leading rider in the U.S., setting records across North America, following a path to what would become a distinguished career spanning over forty years. With over 26 Breeders’ Cup wins, more than any other jockey, and currently earning more than $333 million on the track, Smith earned the nickname “Big Money Mike”, an honor for a kid who started out breaking young horses while still a child himself.
In 2018, Bob Baffert, trainer of 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, gave Smith the ride on a massive chestnut colt that was creating a buzz in the industry as something quite spectacular.
“Justify was bigger, stronger, faster, than most horses and extremely intelligent,” said Smith. Standing at 16.3 hands and weighing 1,380 pounds, the well-muscled horse almost demanded attention when he was present, puffing himself up and posing for onlookers. Starting his career as a 3-year-old, Justify quickly proved his almost cosmic abilities on the track, winning his very first race by 9 ½ lengths, his second by 6 ½ lengths, and the third by 3 lengths. His fourth race was the Kentucky Derby with Mike Smith in the saddle.
The rain poured down the day of the Kentucky Derby. Standing in the starting gate, Justify focused straight ahead, leaving the gate with his head down, as if he knew the other horses wouldn’t dare cross the path in front of him. His white blaze still vivid, along with Smith’s white racing silks that, while soaking wet, remained free of any mud, unlike every other jockey behind them. Justify won by 2 ½ lengths, earning Smith his second Kentucky Derby win.
“When he won the Derby, the most pressure was on me going into the Preakness. I thought all along that the Belmont would be a track he would handle really well,” said Smith. “He has that nice big stride, high cruising speed, the stamina, and tactical speed needed. I knew when he won the Derby that if he could win the Preakness, he should really love Belmont.”
Justify came out of The Derby with a heel bruise requiring a special shoe, causing some to worry if he would race, let alone win, at the Preakness. For days leading up to that race, the sky drenched Baltimore with merciless rain. Another sloppy track with mud greeted Smith and Justify the morning of the Preakness Stakes. Just before the race, the rain stopped, and a heavy fog moved in like the blanket of doubt that so many had in Justify pulling off another win.
Justify never faltered, staying calm and focused in the starting gate, exploding into high speed, quickly moving to the front with his exquisite power, not even jumping puddles along the way could stop him from winning that day. He won by half a length, the flawless contrast of his white face pushing through the dense fog, an instant reminder that he was truly unbeatable. It was as if they had not even run the race, when comparing them to each horse coming up behind their path, covered in mud, many almost unrecognizable.
Baffert used a similar training method that he had used for American Pharoah in 2015; keeping Justify in training at Churchill Downs (Kentucky), a track the horse liked, leading up to the Belmont Stakes. He was shipped to New York just days before the final race.
Mike giving Justify some love after a training workout.
“Once we won the Preakness, I was able to just enjoy that entire day of the Belmont. I was smiling before I even went into the gate, I had to keep telling myself ‘stop it, knock that smile off your face, you have a job to do,’” laughed Smith. “Everyone around me kept trying to stay calm. You would think I would be a nervous wreck, but I really wasn’t. I just had this calm confidence in Justify. I remember they were showing a piece on NBC, and had my mother talking about how I used to go in the front door of the school and right out the back, where my uncle would pick me up to go work the horses. The camera panned over to me and I was laying there taking a nap before the big race.”
Humbled by the support of other jockeys, the fans, and those who believed in him, one person in particular stood out to Smith that day. Ron Turcotte was there. Here was the very jockey that had inspired Smith as a child - to follow the same career path. Turcotte was witness to the eruption of emotions that Mike Smith was just minutes away from experiencing. The same feelings that made it seem like it was just yesterday that he had claimed the Crown himself, in 1973, aboard Secretariat.
Known for his ability to remain calm and focused, even during the biggest high-stakes races, Smith has a tactic he uses to his advantage. “The game is fast enough. If you can slow it down in your head, it makes it all easier. If you stay fast you are liable to make mistakes,” explained Smith. “If you just slow things down enough, even though the game is still moving fast all around you, slow your mind, relax, and focus on what you need to do.”
A sold-out crowd surrounded the track on a beautiful day at Belmont Park. Justify calmly walked into post No. 1 position, a place many trainers hope they do not get in the draw, as it often results in their horse becoming pinned up against the rail early on in a race. Smith morphed his wide smile into a focused expression, knowing that just 1 ½ miles stood between what may or may not become the greatest moment of his racing career. Justify broke flawlessly, taking an early lead from the start.
Justify won the race by 1 ¾ lengths without so much as a speck of dirt tarnishing the new champion. “I remember passing the wire and all those people screaming, it was all happening in slow motion. I was so happy and humbled. I just wanted to stop and tell everyone! I just don’t have the words in my vocabulary to describe the feeling,” said Smith.
Together, they broke “The Curse of Apollo”, a 136-year streak where no horse had won The Kentucky Derby without ever racing as a two-year-old. He became the only American Triple Crown winning horse that never lost a single race in his career. He matched Seattle Slew’s long-held record of initially being the only horse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated, where Seattle Slew did end up losing three races afterwards. Justify retired to stud after his Triple Crown win.
In total, he was undefeated in all six of his races, with Mike Smith being the jockey in all but his very first race. Smith broke the record previously held by Victor Espinoza, taking the new title as the oldest jockey in Triple Crown history to win, at the age of 52.
Smith praised Justify for allowing him to enjoy the ride and earn the unforgettable memories he will hold on to for the rest of his life, while also dedicating the Triple Crown win to disabled jockeys. As a horse that often preferred his personal space, to be left alone, and disliked visitors in his stall, Smith recalls him being a totally different horse when you were on his back. “He was happiest out on the track. You could love and rub all over him when you were on his back. He was so intelligent and was never phased by the environment around him, the crowds or noise. It was really special for me to ride this horse, I have said that he was sent from Heaven,” said Smith.
Mike Smith continues riding today, well into his fifties, maintaining focus on his career, riding at the highest level on the top horses in the country. With over 5,600+ career wins, he certainly hasn’t slowed down, but has become more selective in the races he rides in, often choosing the more lucrative options, balancing time spent with his wife, Cynthia, and their dog, Bella.
Among many awards and recognition, Smith received the ESPY Award for Top U.S. Jockey in both 1994 and 2019, an Eclipse Award in 1993 and 1994, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003, an honor he often said he wasn’t sure he deserved compared to fellow jockeys that had not received the same honors, a statement that was unsurprising due to his humble nature that is often admired from his peers and fans. Smith is known to be universally liked and often admired for his genuine kindness and passion for the sport.
As of the start of 2021, Smith has won The Kentucky Derby twice (2005, 2018), the Preakness Stakes twice (1993, 2018), and the Belmont Stakes three times (2010, 2013, 2018). According to his long-standing childhood goal, he just has to win the Triple Crown one more time before he can retire.
Triple Crown champions, American Pharoah (left) and Justify (right) size each other up, with trainer, Bob Baffert (center).
Since the early 1800’s, only thirteen horses and their jockeys have had the perfect combination of skill, natural born talent, and likely, a dash of good luck to have what it takes to win the Triple Crown, a true test of champions. These five living legends have inspired not just the jockeys over the past century, but also future jockeys, and most likely everyone connected to the racing industry, and equine enthusiasts alike across the globe. Will there be more Triple Crown winners in the future? The answer remains unknown, but these stories will live on for generations... and for those privileged to witness their victories, the memories will last a lifetime! •••
About the Writer
Mandy Boggs is a lifelong equestrian, passionate for the sport and equine industry. Mandy grew up in a multi-generation family involved with Thoroughbred racehorses, breeding, and showing in the hunter/jumpers. She is a published writer, volunteers for various non-profit organizations, while running her marketing and design agency, Aristo Marketing LLC. She enjoys spending time with her family and many animals.
Published in the KENTUCKY EQUESTRIAN DIRECTORY - 2021 ISSUE
Published in the OHIO EQUESTRIAN DIRECTORY - 2021 ISSUE