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Jockey Mike Smith empathizes with rider bumped from Derby mount

May 6, 2019

I

f anyone had empathy for what Corey Lanerie was going through Saturday evening, it was the guy handpicked to replace him.

A professional jockey for most of his 53 years, New Mexico native Mike Smith rode 30-1 longshot Cutting Humor to a 10th-place finish in Saturday’s running of the Kentucky Derby. His inclusion in the race made headlines Friday morning when he was asked by the horse’s owners to replace Lanerie for Saturday’s race.

Lanerie told a local newspaper in Kentucky that getting bumped this late in the process was like “a slap in the face.” You can’t blame him. To lose your place in the sport’s biggest race a mere day before it happens is an emotional kick in the teeth.

Just days before, it was Smith who lost his ride when race favorite Omaha Beach was scratched after developing respiratory issues. Smith was suddenly an unexpected free agent, a generational talent just sitting out there waiting for anyone to give him a chance.

When I spoke to him just hours before ventured onto the muddy track and steered Cutting Humor into the starting gate at Churchill Downs, he spoke quietly but candidly from the jockey’s locker room about the move some were calling controversial and unfair.

“For a while there I didn’t think I’d be in this thing,” he said. “I wasn’t sure.”

Lanerie, after all, is not some rookie trying to make a name for himself. The 44-year-old has won more than 4,500 races, more than 1,000 of them at the hallowed ground of Churchill Downs.

Smith is, of course, the Hall of Fame jockey who rode Justify to the Triple Crown last year, and it was Justify whose ownership group also owns Cutting Humor. He has amassed more than

$300 million in winnings since his humble beginnings that includes plenty of rides at the racetracks in Santa Fe and Ruidoso.

His 5,400 wins include two Kentucky Derbys, two at the Preakness and three at the Belmont Stakes. If there’s a race to be ridden, he has probably won it.

It made Smith an easy and obvious choice for Cutting Humor’s owners. He’s been around long enough to have had what happened to Lanerie happen to him more times than he can count.

In short, forgive him if he’s not as entirely unapologetic as some would like him to be. Part of the deal for him taking Lanerie’s spot was that both jockeys would be paid the same had Cutting Humor had a winning payout.

“I talked to Corey a little [Friday] and I think part of him understands,” Smith told me. “It’s part of what a jockey goes through so, right now, I’m sure he’s hurting. I’ve felt that.”

Despite the late change it, didn’t do anything to alter Smith’s approach. Not a superstitious type, he chooses to focus on the routine he’s done tens of thousands of times over the nearly 40 years he’s been pulling down a paycheck to ride a horse out of the gates.

He said he chose to spend the final few hours Saturday focusing mainly on the conditions and the gut feeling he got from Cutting Humor. While the result wasn’t exactly what he’d hoped for, Smith was happy to simply be a part of the greatest single-day spectacle his sport has.

“To be here,” he said, “is a special thing every time I do it. I mean, it’s a tough thing for Corey, but it does happen.”

Will Webber writes an opinion column about sports in New Mexico. Contact Webber at 505-603-9467 or wwebber@sfnewmexican.com.