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For Justify's jockey Mike Smith, 52, who became the oldest-ever winner of the Triple Crown — horse racing's top honor — on June 9, age wasn't an obstacle but an advantage. "I feel I haven't lost anything to age," he told the website America’s Best Racing before the final, decisive race, "and what I have gained is so much experience in major races. That feeling of having been there, done that is priceless. You can’t buy that."
After the race, Smith told the New York Times he couldn't have triumphed on a big horse like the winner, Justify, when he was younger. "It's all the things you learn from time," said Smith. "I wasn't ready back then."
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The victories of Smith and such card-carrying AARP members as jockeys Robbie Davis, 56, and Gary Stevens, 55, who played the jockey riding history's greatest horse in the 2010 film Secretariat, show how crucial experience and mental skills are when competing against younger bodies. "My preparation is a lot more mental than when I was younger, and I know Mike is the same," says Stevens, a close friend of Smith's. "We both study films of past rides of our horses and rival jockeys, so we know their strengths and weaknesses more than we did at 20 or 30."
Smith and Stevens both also overcame hard knocks that might have made less dedicated jockeys retire: Smith spent months in a body cast after his 1,300-pound horse landed on him and broke his back in 1998 at Saratoga, and Stevens has had a total knee replacement, followed by a total hip replacement. But Stevens still rides hard and well; he says, "When I turned 50, people joked, 'You're an old man now.' I just laugh and say, 'You wanna see me ride?'"
And Smith told the Baltimore Sun he feels better now than in his 20s and 30s. He's said his role model in youth was Laffit Pincay, Jr., who set a record for wins (9,530) and outrode jockeys his grandchildren’s age until a broken neck forced his retirement at 56 in 2003. Pincay was riding at a non-competitive Santa Anita, California, event this April. "He still does it to this day, in his 70s," Smith told the Sun. "If he took his shirt off, you’d be impressed."
After the race, Smith thanked Justify's trainer, Bob Baffert, 65, for trusting that a 52-year-old could win big. "Today he made my dreams come true," said Smith. "He put an old man out there and stayed out of the way."