Saturday, May 21, 2005
Horse Racing: Mike Smith, Born to ride
By Toby Smith
Journal Staff Writer
ARTESIA Thirty years before he won the Kentucky Derby, Mike Smith started racing horses here, at a track where spectators made side bets from pickups, drank whiskey from pint bottles and in between swung their fists at each other.
Weed-choked and decorated with junked cars, the site is now called, appropriately, Wayward Farms.
It's a long way from Wayward Farms to Pimlico Race Course where Smith today will attempt to win the Preakness Stakes, for his second gemstone in racing's Triple Crown.
And yet this six-furlong oval on the north end of town, where cowboys wagered their quarter horse could
whup someone else's, helped Smith gain skills that later earned him a spot in the Racing Hall of Fame and put 6 million bucks in his pocket.
The best way to begin
Horse people from up and down the Pecos River Valley, and some from as far east as Hobbs, used to haul their trailers into that farm area every Sunday afternoon. Owners would sit about bragging, and when it was almost dark, and they'd had enough to drink, they'd call out: "I gotta hunnerd says my colt's faster'n yours."
If you wanted in on the action, you fed the pot.
Match races date back almost 300 years. In the late 1800s, they gave way to fields of horses rather than just pairs. Match racing reached its peak in 1938. That's when the whole nation, it seemed, listened on radios as plucky Seabiscuit knocked off the great War Admiral in a thrilling one-on-one. Coincidentally, that contest took place in Baltimore, on the same track where Smith is riding today.
Gary Vallejos, a sunny-faced horse trainer, is, at age 38, a year younger than Mike Smith. He's also Mike's cousin. As kids growing up in Dexter, just up the highway, the two were thick as gnats.
Walking along Wayward Farms' dirt track one recent morning, stopping to inspect a rusted starting gate, Vallejos says, "When we was little, I'd be running around here trying to find a burrito and a Coke. Mike was here to learn. He was at the finish line studying the horses, figuring out how to get a ride."
Smith was barely 12 years old when he first showed up here, a tiny, polite boy brought by his uncle Greg Vallejos, who is also Gary's uncle.
Smith's education truly took at his Uncle Greg's place in Dexter, where Mike lived for a time and broke horses, starting at age 8. He did the breaking in a round pen, a galvanized steel contraption that Greg welded.
Sometimes, says Gary, a horse would throw the determined little rider over the side of the enclosed pen. "Mike would dust himself off, laugh and then go back in."
The round pen let Smith know when to hold a horse, when to let him go.
"Most jockeys don't get that kind of training," says Gary. "They start riding by getting on a horse and going. They lose a lot that way."
If the round pen showed Smith how to handle a horse, the track in Artesia taught him balance and reflexes. A jockey who starts on quarter horses learns how to maneuver and get a horse to do what he wants, quickly.
Today, Smith says, "I can walk up to about any horse and almost have a conversation with him."
Holding on to a dream
One look at Vidoll Daniel, Smith's mother, and you know where Mike got his size, or lack of it. Vidoll stands all of 4 feet, 9 inches, while Mike goes 5-3. But you've got to look at Mike's father, George Smith, too. He's 5-7. George started out a jockey until he ran into personal demons.
In her Roswell home, Vidoll has a photo of her son sitting confidently atop a Shetland pony. Mike is 2. If Mike couldn't find a real horse growing up, he'd improvise. Vidoll has another photo of him aboard a sheep. Mike used to regularly make his younger but much bigger brother Raymond get down on all fours and ride him. It wasn't playing. Mike did it to practice falling off a horse.
As his passion grew, Mike would tell another cousin, Annette "Bamber" Vallejos, whom he called Little Sis, "One day I'm gonna win the Kentucky Derby."
"Dream on," Little Sis said.
You grew up in Dexter, Bamber reasoned, you stayed there to pick cotton or work at a dairy.
Lordy, nobody from Dexter gets on the tee-vee.
Everybody in Dexter gets to the match races on Sunday, though. Well, almost everybody. Mike's mother always refused. Placing her hands over her eyes, Vidoll says, "I was afraid to watch." Even now she can't watch her son ride on the tee-vee.
Mike came home from one match race in Artesia with a broken left arm. Another Sunday, welts covered his body. "He was ahead in the race by a neck," remembers Vidoll. "Then the other guy started whipping Mike, trying to slow him down. Afterward, Mike didn't say anything. When his Uncle Greg found out, he went after that rider and gave it to him bad."
Vidoll let Mike go to the match races because she knew how happy it made him feel. But she wasn't happy when she found under his bed a sock filled with cash. The conversation, she said, went like this:
Vidoll: "Is this money from drugs?"
Mike: "No, ma'am. I earned it square."
Mike: "Racing, ma'am."
Mike had finally convinced a few owners at the match races to give him mounts. When they saw how his rides had turn of foot, they lined up to pay him cash money.
Picking up the pieces
After divorcing George Smith, Vidoll, in her 30s with two small boys, enrolled in college. Tough as it was, she made it through. She's a special ed teacher now.
"I went back to school mostly hoping it would rub off on Mike and Ray." It worked with Ray; he graduated and became an engineer. Mike dropped out in the ninth grade.
"We had lots of arguments about that," Vidoll recalls. Mike told his mother, "If I stay here in Dexter, I'll end up chopping cotton." He knew what he wanted to do: ride.
As a girl, Vidoll knew what she wanted to do: sing. Instead, at 17, she had Mike, became a mother and never sang again.
Knowing she had no business bridling Mike, she tried. Dutifully, Vidoll dropped him off at the front door of Dexter High School. Trouble is, Mike went straight out the school's back door, where Uncle Greg, Vidoll's brother, was waiting for him to gallop horses, to work out in the round pen.
"You quit school, you'll never amount to anything," more than one Dexter teacher told Smith.
The kid didn't listen. At 15, he left for spells with Uncle Greg, riding at Sunland Park, Santa Fe, Albuquerque. Couple of years later, Mike's grandfather, Willie Smith, sold his business in El Paso and took Mike to bigger tracks across the country.
On one of his first return visits to Dexter, Smith showed up at the Allsup's store around the corner from Dexter High. Smith isn't proud he jettisoned his education, he'll be the first to tell you. But that day he came back to town, he was driving a new white, 1985 Trans Am. He parked it at the Allsup's. Parked it close enough so some of the teachers who told him he wouldn't amount to a pile of horse apples wouldn't miss it.
You can go home again
When he isn't riding, Mike Smith lives in a condo near Los Angeles. He has joked with David Letterman and, after a race in Canada, met the Queen of England. ("Pleased to meetcha, Ma'am.")
He's been to Japan, Dubai and Ireland, but southeastern New Mexico is home. He comes back about once a year. He'll visit his mom in Roswell, then head down to Dexter, where he'll drop in at the Little Valley Club, a smoky, dark saloon/eatery. There he's sure to run into his grandmother, Earlene Smith, who used to watch Mike's daddy at match races, later her grandson.
Edging 80, Earlene is easy to spot. Even with the oxgyen tank she must use, she's the one swearing the loudest. On Derby day, when she caught Mike on the tee-vee, a bourbon in hand, Earlene hollered, "Go! Go! You you little sumbitch!"
He'll also visit Bamber Vallejos, who waits tables at the Little Valley. Bamber's the cousin who always said "Dream on" when Mike told her was going to win the Derby.
Two weeks ago, Mike made a flurry of calls to New Mexico. When Bamber picked up the phone, an excited voice said, "Whaddya say now, Little Sis?"