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Smith's roots on full display after big win

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico received plenty of publicity before, during and after Mike Smith's riveting ride to the Triple Crown on Saturday. And Smith, who was born in Roswell and grew up in Dexter, is OK with that.

“That's my home,” Smith said in a phone interview Monday. “That's where I'm from. It's an unbelievable gem. It's hidden. Most people in the U.S. don't know anything about it.”

But millions of viewers across the country were given a glimpse of it when NBC featured Smith's hometown and his life story during a special video segment leading up to Saturday's Belmont Stakes. And Smith referred to it again in post race comments.

The NBC video showed Dexter, the school Smith attended – and dropped out of much to his mother's chagrin – and the farm where he started riding horses. It also showed photos of the now-closed Santa Fe Downs, where he first raced, and Ruidoso Downs.

Smith, who now lives in Southern California, wanted to ride horses as a young child. A photo of him as a toddler on a horse, which was published in Saturday's Journal in advance of the Triple Crown race, was again shown during the NBC special.

Smith endured adversity in his childhood, and has dealt with injuries during his Hall of Fame career. His mother, Vidoll Daniel, was disappointed when he dropped out of high school.

But racing was important to him. He lived with his grandparents for some time after his parents divorced.

Smith's uncle, Thomas Vallejos, was a horse trainer who introduced young Mike Smith to the horse racing industry. NBC recounted how Smith's mother would drop him off in front of the school and he would walk straight through the school to another door, where his uncle picked him up so he could train.

Smith said he still loves New Mexico. He would bring Justify to parade through the state if he could.

“I wish,” he said during the phone interview. “I don't own him. He's not mine.”

Smith has been so busy with celebrations and interviews he was not aware of post race comments made by an opposing horse owner until asked about it by the Journal.

Horse owner Mike Repole told the New York Post he hopes officials look into the tactics of the jockey for Restoring Hope, the “other” horse trained by Bob Baffert in Saturday's Belmont.

Though Repole did say Justify was the deserving winner, he told the New York Post he felt like 37-1 Restoring Hope ran interference for Justify against other horses in the race.

“It's just part of any sport,” Smith said Monday. “People just aren't happy. Everyone wants to win. Everyone thinks that afterward, like how a game should be coached. I didn't see (jockey Florent Geroux on Restoring Hope) get in anyone's way. I didn't see him block anyone. You have to run into somebody to do that. I didn't see that.”

Repole, co-owner of horses that finished fourth and last in the Belmont, told the Post: “It definitely seemed to me he was more of an offensive lineman than a racehorse trying to win the Belmont and Justify was a running back trying to run for a touchdown.”

Smith countered that Geroux was merely trying to calm Restoring Hope after an aggressive burst.

“I think (Geroux) was fine,” Smith said. “He didn't bother any other horses. It's a tactic we all use to get the horse to relax. He's trying to give himself a chance to win.”

Justify shot off like a bullet from the start and led wire to wire in his Belmont victory by 1¾ lengths. Justify's strong start caused Smith to conjure memories when talking to an NBC reporter after the win.

“He left (the gate) like he was going 440 yards in Ruidoso, New Mexico,” Smith said, referring to Ruidoso Downs.

Smith remains proud of Justify, calling him, “brilliant,” and a “horse sent from heaven.” Justify will take a break before racing again soon, it was reported on Sunday.

The horse's owners have reportedly sold Justify's breeding rights for $75 million.

Smith, who became the oldest jockey to win horse racing's most coveted feat at age 52, rose to fame as “Big Money Mike” after earning an estimated $300 million and is now on the top of the horse racing world.

But he said New Mexico, where he still has plenty of family, remains a special place for him. Last month, the Ruidoso Downs website reported Smith's uncle and aunt, Carlos and Gloria Vallejos, purchased a winning ticket on their nephew and Justify in the Preakness.

Justify's next stop is at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Smith, along with Justify owners and trainer Baffert will receive their engraved Kentucky Derby trophies on Saturday.

“I cannot even tell you how special this is,” Smith said. “It's a dream come true. It's a pinnacle of our sport. I'm so blessed to have it. I'm proud of it.”

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