Q&A with professional jockey Mike Smith

On training, nutrition, and why meeting a horse for the first time is like a blind date

When it comes to horse racing, “you’d probably think the animal does all of the work since it’s the one running,” says 52-year-old professional jockey Mike Smith. “But it’s the biggest misconception people have about the sport. You’d be surprised at how fit you have to be to ride a race,” he says. And Smith, who is five-foot-four, would know. He’s won the Belmont (twice), the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness Stakes. He’s also the champion of 25 Breeders’ Cup races and will partake in this year’s event happening on Saturday, November 4, in Del Mar, California. Here, Smith shares his training routine, what makes this particular race so special, and more.

How is the Breeders’ Cup different from other races?

"You have your American classics, your Triple Crown races, which are extremely important here in the U.S., but less so overseas. But the Breeders’ Cup is big to the world. Everyone wants to win this race because it’s the best of the best coming together from across the globe competing in different age groups, distances, and surfaces."

What are the main muscle groups being worked when you’re racing?

"It’s similar to recreational horseback riding, but you probably use your legs and your core a lot more as a jockey to stabilize yourself. You also use your lats since you have to reign in the horse, but really you have to work the whole body in the gym. You can’t just do your legs and forget about your shoulders, you have to be well-rounded in anything you do to be the best at it."

What is your training routine like?

"I have a personal trainer and I vary my training so that it includes cardio, HIIT, and strength. We race three days a week right now in California but I’ll train those days I’m not riding. It depends on my schedule, but I usually ride a lot on the weekends. I might do 30 to 40 minutes of cardio and a light strength training session. I’m at a good place right now in my career and for my age and I’m just trying to stay on top of it, so fitness is more about a way of life for me. As I get closer to race day I’ll lift lighter weights and do easier cardio. I let my body recover so that I’m not fatigued and by the time race day comes I’m ready to run through a wall. My energy level is high and I feel strong."

Is there a diet for jockeys similar to carb loading before a marathon?

"No, not at all. Each person is different. For me, if I want pasta I’ll have it, I just don’t eat a lot of it. I also try not to snack too much. Some people are just naturally bigger and they struggle a little more with it, some people are blessed to be even lighter and have no problem at all. It just depends on where you’re at."

What kind of technology do you use in training?

"There’s a piece of equipment called the Equicizer, which kind of simulates riding a horse—not exactly but it comes very close to using the same muscles. It’s a good tool especially for young riders trying to learn technique. But when you’re also recovering from injuries it’s useful for getting the base down again as far as your legs are concerned. If you can ride the Equicizer five minutes you’re really, really fit. If you can ride it for five minutes, you can ride a race."

To what extent are you and the horse training together as one?

"A lot of horses I ride I’m meeting for the first time in the big race. We don’t have to train together. There are some I’ve been on quite a bit and some I haven’t even seen. It’s almost like meeting people. You meet someone at a restaurant or a bar and you hit it off right off the bat and it works out. Sometimes the longer you know somebody the more you wish you had never met them and sometimes the first time is the best. But horses at this stage are machines almost. They’re trained so well that they know what their job is. It’s just about getting the horse into a beautiful, comfortable rhythm, knowing what they’re capable of, and with technology these days you can watch all of their past performances. The only time a trainer really wants you to get on a horse beforehand is to feel its mouth [which serves as an important line of communication with the rider] but those are things you can feel as you ride. If a horse has a very sensitive mouth and you have heavy hands that are all over it, the horse is probably not going to get along with you."

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