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Galloping toward a date with destiny

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith should be rested and ready for business today.

If things went as anticipated, he spent parts of Friday in New York with family – his mother, Vidoll Daniel, from Roswell; his brother Raymond, who lives in Arizona; Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Jim Brockmann from Santa Fe; a bunch of others, all of them there to see Smith and support his ride in today’s Belmont Stakes.

Mike Smith, who was born in Roswell and grew up in Dexter, got an early start riding horses. In this family photo, Smith, then about 2, sits atop a pony.

Smith, who was born in Roswell and grew up in Dexter, but now makes his home in Southern California, was looking forward to the reunion in the Big Apple, to catching up on news from kinfolk and from New Mexico, to enjoying the company of people he cares about and who care about him. But only up to a point.

“I’m going to see them, relax and go to bed early,” Smith told the Journal during a phone interview from California earlier this week. “As long as I get my rest, that’s all that matters.”

It matters because this afternoon at New York’s Belmont Park, Smith has a date with destiny. At about 4:37 p.m. MDT, Smith, riding Justify, a chestnut colt with a prominent white blaze and a flawless 5-0 racing record, will punch out of the No. 1 gate in the Belmont Stakes and pound off on a mile-and-a-half pursuit of the Triple Crown, the only major horse-racing laurel that has eluded the 52-year-old jockey.

Win, lose or draw

It’s a huge race. Dating back to 1919, only 12 horses have earned the Triple Crown – victories in one year by a 3-year-old thoroughbred in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Smith takes today’s race very seriously. He wants it bad.

Jockey Mike Smith, a New Mexico native, holds the Woodlawn Vase after riding Justify to victory at the Preakness Stakes on May 19. Justify’s trainer, Bob Baffert, is at right. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

But the jockey, who started racing horses on match-race tracks in southeast New Mexico when he was 11 and won his first race as a licensed jockey at the Downs at Santa Fe when he was 16, is putting it in perspective, seeing today’s challenge as the latest stride in a long ride he loves.

“All of it is forever embedded in my mind,” he said. “I have been very, very blessed, happy to be part of it. I love and appreciate it now more than ever. Win, lose or draw, I have had a great career. And win, lose or draw, it’s not going to break me.”

Considering the achievements he has racked up on horse tracks, it’s difficult to believe anything could break his spirit at this point. Disappoint him, maybe. Break him, not hardly.

Smith has won more than 5,400 races; accounted for more than $306 million in all-time winnings, garnering him the nickname Big Money Mike; won more Breeders’ Cup races (26) than any other jockey; won the Kentucky Derby twice, the Preakness Stakes twice and the Belmont Stakes twice.

He was presented the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey in 1993 and 1994 and was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003.

Justify, with Mike Smith aboard, splashes along a sloppy track during last month’s Preakness Stakes. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Not too shabby a run for the veteran, who this year became the second-oldest jockey to win a Kentucky Derby. And – win, lose or draw today in the Belmont Stakes – the run’s not over.

“I could see another two or three years ahead of me now,” he said this week. “The Good Lord willing, I can stay healthy. It just depends on how my body is feeling.”

An early start

Smith was born in Roswell on Aug. 10, 1965. His late father, George Smith, was a jockey. Smith’s Aunt Nedra Matteucci, his father’s sister, said when Mike was just 2 years old, he was riding the arm of a family couch, teaching himself how to change hands to handle a horse in the turns or down the stretch.

A horse-training uncle on his mother’s side, the Vallejos family, broke him into racing, teaching him to ride and taking him to those small-town tracks where cowboys, ranchers and others placed bets on horses they owned or admired. Those were usually quarter horse races, measured in yards rather than the furlong or mile-plus distances of the thoroughbred tracks. In these shorter races, a strong hand is necessary from the get-go because there’s no time to make up for faltering.

“I can muscle a horse if I have to,” Smith said when asked by the Journal what he considers his greatest assets as a jockey. “That comes from racing quarter horses. But I just have a feel for what a horse is comfortable with and what it’s not comfortable with. Whenever you have a horse that is comfortable, it is going to perform for you. I can be extremely patient and be very aggressive if I need to be.”

He said his early start on the race tracks was valuable simply because it provided him with more practice.

“Like anything in life, the more you do things, the better you get,” he said. “It don’t hurt (to start early) – unless you are not getting better. But for me, I knew I loved it and that makes you continue.”

In just a few years, Smith graduated from a schoolkid riding match-races on a track in Artesia to licensed jockey riding at Sunland Park in southern New Mexico, at Santa Fe and, during the New Mexico State Fair, in Albuquerque.

Smith’s Aunt Nedra has an art gallery in Santa Fe, but she and her husband, Richard Matteucci, own homes in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. She said that when Smith was still an apprentice jockey, he used to stay with her and Richard at their Albuquerque home during State Fair racing. She said Smith, ever conscious of his weight and keeping fit, had to pass on the flavorful Italian meals Richard prepared.

“I can’t eat that,” Nedra recalled her nephew saying, likely on more than one occasion.

In 1982, Smith won his first race as a licensed jockey on a horse named Forever Man at the Downs at Santa Fe. Today, 36 years and thousands of wins later, he makes a run at the Triple Crown.

Ups and some downs

Smith’s career has been studded with lots of good times but some sobering ones as well.

In 1993, he won his first Preakness on a horse named Prairie Bayou. But just weeks later, Prairie Bayou, while running in the Belmont Stakes with Smith aboard, fractured a left foreleg and had to be euthanized.

Also in 1993, Smith set a North American record for stakes wins in a single year with 62 and the very next year reset the record with 68 stakes victories.

But in 1998, he suffered two bad spills, busting his shoulder during a race in March, an injury that sidelined him for two months, and then breaking two vertebrae in his back at Saratoga that August. The latter injury put Smith in a body cast and his career in jeopardy. But he was only out of action for six months.

In 2002, he rode Horse of the Year Azeri, a filly, to a Breeders’ Cup Distaff victory, and in 2005 he won his first Kentucky Derby on Giacomo, a 50-1 longshot.

He rode the great Zenyatta, a horse that won 19 of her 20 races, to 16 consecutive victories but was heartbroken when he was unable to guide the mare to her 20th win in her last race, the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Zenyatta finished second to Blame by inches.

Earlier in 2010, however, Smith had won his first Belmont Stakes on a chestnut colt name Drosselmeyer. And today, he will go for his third Belmont win and his first Triple Crown on a chestnut colt named Justify.

A horse and a prayer

Smith rode Justify to a 2½-length victory on a sloppy-wet track at the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Two weeks later at the Preakness, on a track that was not only sloppy but fog-shrouded as well, Smith urged Justify to a hard-fought, half-length win.

The weather forecast for the Belmont as of Friday called for possible showers, which might mean another muddy track, a factor that apparently is not a problem for Justify. But at 1½ miles, the Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races, the biggest test of a horse’s heart and hardiness and a significant barrier to Triple Crown success.

When American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015, it was the first time since Affirmed managed the feat in 1978.

But things look promising for Justify and jockey Smith. Oddsmakers have made Justify an even-odds favorite to win.

What does Smith think of Justify, how would he compare the colt to Drosselmeyer or Zenyatta?

“I don’t ever compare horses,” Smith told the Journal. “At their time, they were the best at what they were doing. Justify is just a very, very, talented 3-year-old.”

Smith’s Aunt Nedra is more emphatic about the horse.

“He’s a beast, a huge horse with really long strides and bigger lungs,” she said.

Nedra was at the Baltimore, Md., track for the running of the Preakness, enduring the miserable weather that day to watch her nephew ride. She said she was walking in mud up to her ankles, in muck that sucked up around her new and expensive shoes.

“I told Mike it was a good thing he won,” Nedra said.

She said that because of recent rotator cuff surgery, she will not be at Belmont Park today. She’ll watch the race on TV here in New Mexico.

“I will be there in spirit and I lit all the candles I can at (Santa Fe’s St. Francis) Cathedral,” she said. But she thinks her nephew’s best prayer is the horse he will be riding. If nothing goes wrong, Nedra said, she likes Justify’s chances.

“He is the strongest horse,” she said. “He just came out of nowhere and is a champion. And Mike is always a champion in my eyes.”

What next?

There was a time when Smith rode a thousand races a year. Now it’s 200 to 300 a year. He is winding down his career.

If he were to win the Belmont Stakes today, seize the Triple Crown, might he reconsider his future and retire?

“It would be a great way to ride off into the sunset,” he said. “But that’s not what I’m thinking right now.”

One reason is he can’t see beyond racing, doesn’t know what he would do.

“Whatever the Good Lord calls me to do,” he said. “Commentating (on TV) would seem to be something. But nothing sticks yet. That’s what makes me think that right now it’s not time (to quit) because nothing is coming into mind.”

His Aunt Nedra, who remembers when he was a 2-year-old riding the family furniture to victory, understands.

“He doesn’t want to retire and be a trainer,” she said. “He doesn’t want to be on TV. He just wants to ride horses.”