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Native son goes for the Triple Crown

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Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

No matter how far Dexter Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith goes or the venue he races in, he’s never too big or famous to hear his mother Vidoll Daniel’s voice — and advice. It is their racing ritual that before each race — including the Preakness, the biggest race of his career to this point — Smith slips away and calls her.

“I told him,” Daniel said, “You need to stay focus, and to focus on your goal.”

As the riders were walking to the stalls to begin the race, Smith knew he had the best horse in the field. His horse Justify had won the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths.

This would be the second of the Triple Crown races he would have to race on a sloppy track. It had rained for five straight days, and to make matters worse the fog was so heavy and thick that it was hard for TV cameras to see the riders and horses.

Smith’s nickname is ‘Big Money Mike’ because the higher the stakes, the better he races. Many of his fans see him now, but not many know that he started riding horses at the age of two. According to his mother, it’s no surprise.

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“He was born to do this,” Daniel said. “If he didn’t have a stick horse, or a rocking horse or a Shetland pony he had a brother to ride. He’s doing what he was born to do. There are certain people that are born to do certain things and that’s who he is.”

Few know that Smith raced match races with for his uncle Thomas Vallejos, and galloped a lot of horses for the people of Roswell. For Smith it was a love for horses and a way to make money at a young age. From there he raced at the Albuquerque fairgrounds and won his first race at the age of 16 when he rode Forever Man at the track in Santa Fe. From there he raced in El Paso, Texas. After that he moved to Arkansas with his grandparents. When his grandfather died he moved to New York.

Smith is a God-fearing man who prays regularly. He learned from his grandmother to give thanks to God, for all the blessings that have been bestowed upon him. Even in the bad times, Smith has continued to let people know that his source for everything is God.

“His grandmother taught him to be a God-fearing man,” Daniel said. “She taught him how to pray and to give thanks when something good happens to him. His grandmother taught him to get on his knees and thank God.”

It hasn’t been all roses for Smith. He has broken bones in his body, but none so troubling as when he suffered two broken vertebrae in his back at Saratoga in 1998. Smith chose not to have an operation and was in a body cast for six months. He came back from the injury too soon but made a discovery that would prolong his career. He made a vow to be the most in-shape jockey and he would rededicate himself to fitness, which has prolonged his career.

“Oh yeah,” Smith said. “At my age (52) I’m having some of my best years at the later stages of my career. It’s amazing, it just goes to show that if you take care of yourself and work out hard, stay fit and healthy, great things can happen to you down the road as well.”

When many careers are winding down at age 52, Smith shows no signs of slowing. In fact, if he stays healthy he’s looking to race another three to four years, barring injury. One of the reasons Smith is hesitant to walk away from the sport is that he loves what he does. Also, he has a love for the horses and competition.

“This started out as a love for horses and riding,” Smith said. “But then it was about the competition and a love for the sport. I drink a lot of water every day. I work out every day. I take an hour to two hours a day to exercise. I do that every day and it has paid off for me. To me, there is nothing like competition and winning on race day.”

And they’re off

As they were walking up to the starting gate, Smith said in earlier interviews that he wanted to get Justify well, to get him in a good order and pace. As soon as the horses entered the gates the bell signaled for the race to begin. Soon the riders were making a dash for the inside rail, Justify and Good Magic neck and neck at a fever pace with Good Magic on the inside.

Both horses raced at 47.19 at the 1/2 post with Bravazo hanging a length behind, into the 3/4 post. The TV cameras were straining to see the field through the fog and wet track. With the fog so thick and tensions high at the 1-mile post, the horses were stride-for-stride — both jockeys could have reached out and touched each other with a time of 1:36.10.

Down the stretch

As they turned the corner at the top of the pole to head for home, the fans were standing on their feet as Justify began to slowly pull away and Smith stood up in his saddle and started to use his left hand to whip Justify to get him to go faster as he held off a fast-charging Bravazo and Tenfold by a half-length.

“The other horses were certainly gaining on us,” Smith said. “But I thought we were still pretty good, we only race to the wire, we are racing too. You can’t count going further or what happens after, because you set up your whole strategy for just that distance. … I thought he won very nice. Although the other horses came running at the end, they’re supposed too, they’re good horses as well.”

Daniel did not watch the race. It makes her too nervous to watch. She has her TV set to record the race and then she times it so she will go out, perhaps to the garage, until the race is over.

“I got to the point where it scares me,” Daniel said. “I come on when they are showing the replays of the race or interviewing the winner. I didn’t have a doubt in my mind that he could win that race, I saw the night before exactly what he was going to do and he did it.”

In 2018, Smith has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes aboard Justify, breaking a 136-year old record by winning the Kentucky Derby with a racehorse that had not raced at 2 years of age. The last time that was done was in the 1882 race.

Smith was the second-oldest Derby winner behind Bill Shoemaker, who rode Ferdinand in 1986 at the age of 54.

Justify can become the first horse since American Pharoah in 2015 to capture the Triple Crown. Justify will have to win the race at a mile and a half. Another reason Justify is dominating is his grandfather is Secretariat twice removed.

“It would be not quite half-a-mile, Smith said. “It is going to be the longer of the three. The first one was a mile and a quarter, and then you had a mile and three-sixteenths, and this will be a mile and a half. So, it is going to be the furthest of the three. The pace and aerial are different, but he (Justify) should be able to handle it. As well as all of the other horses running in the race should be able to handle it. They’re all that good for a reason.”

Smith is attempting to do what only 12 other jockeys have done — win the Triple Crown.

“Wow, what a way to end a career,” Smith said. “I can, if I decided to ride off into the sunset it would be an easy ride if I’m fortunate enough to win. I was born in Roswell but raised in Dexter. I went to school there. I take a lot of pride in being from Dexter, New Mexico — it means the world to me to be from there. Please tell the people to pray for me and see if we can get this thing done.”

Smith races the final leg of the Triple Crown at the Belmont in New York on June 9.