Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
During the week leading up to the 150th Belmont Stakes, Mike Smith did what Mike Smith has done every day of his life since his nasty spill in 1998 at Saratoga. With his family and mother, Vidoll Daniel in New York, Smith hit the gym, went to the track and worked out horses. Smith tried not to think about what it would mean if he were to become the 13th rider to win the Triple Crown.
Weeks prior to the race after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Smith never turned down an interview request and found time to give 10 minutes to the Roswell Daily Record sports editor. The whole time with the TV cameras bombarding both his mother’s personal life and his own life, he kept his cool and stayed classy, never turning anyone away.
So when the cameras were on him as he was getting ready for the ride of his life, Smith enjoyed it knowing that this late-career resurgence doesn’t happen often, especially for riders over 50. Many are in the second act of their career or on TV talking strategy. Smith knows that he is on borrowed time and yet with the dedication of a fitness program, he has discovered the fountain of youth in horse racing circles.
“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.”
Smith’s daily routine on any given day — he will do an hour of cardio work: elliptical, bike, rowing machine, treadmill — and then another hour with his personal trainer. He will bike his way to the workout facility and home for extra conditioning. Smith took a brutal spill at the Saratoga race in 1998 that left him with two broken vertebrae and in a body cast for six months as he started the rejuvenation process to his career.
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Smith was in a hurry to come back and ride according to his mother Daniel.
While away, Smith found out how much he loved both the sport and the horses he rides. Smith wanted to come back and be better than he was before. While keeping that vow, Smith promised himself that he would become the fittest jockey on the racetrack. That dedication to fitness has had as much to do with his resurgence and longevity as the talent he has.
The morning of the race, Smith felt very, very blessed to have the opportunity to race and see if he could pull off a victory. He went around to visit each of his 40 family members before he left for the track.
As the race was approaching, the camera followed Smith and focused on him in the dressing room as he got ready to race. What the camera didn’t show was that he was completely relaxed and took a nap before the race. When the cameras were on him, he was all smiles, knowing that he had the hopes of Dexter, New Mexico and the state on his shoulders.
As Smith took the command riders up, he walked Justify to the starting gate. Smith started from the No. 1 post, one of the worst positions to start in. When the gates opened, Smith charged out to the front of the pack and held a steady lead with a blistering pace for the first half mile. The crowd watched in excitement as Smith stood up in a crouch on Justify as he set the pace for the race.
“Big Money Mike” Smith, as trainers and horse racing fans know him, at the age of 52, he was about to make history riding the 3-year-old Justify. All Smith would have to do is navigate the top of the stretch heading for home. While a horse was making its move on Justify’s outside right to close to within a foot of taking the lead from Justify, fans on TV could hear race announcer Larry Collmus state that they’re into the home stretch and he (Smith) has not asked Justify to go yet.
As Justify turned for home, Smith stood up and used the whip with his right hand with a furlong, or one-eighth of a mile, to go in the race to get as much from Justify as he could. It was enough to hold off the hard-charging Gronkowski.
As Smith neared the finish line, fans watching on TV could hear Collmus say, “He’s just perfect, and now he’s just immortal.” Justify won the Belmont Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths over Gronkowski and third-place finisher Homburg with a time of 2:28.18. The win paid $3.60, $3.50 and $2.80. American Pharaoh ended a 37-year Triple Crown drought in 2015 and Smith won the race three years later to win the Triple Crown.
“He probably broke better today than he has out of the other two (Derby and Preakness), to be honest with you,” Smith said. “He left there today (feeling) good, which was very important. He was able to go ahead and get a comfortable lead and let him get in that rhythm of his.”
Smith became the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown. In his Hall of Fame career, he has won more than 5,400 races, including a record 26 in the Breeders’ Cup, and seven Triple Crown races. His mounts have earned more than $310 million.
“I was pretty confident,” Smith said. “I was very confident that he was going to run well. I didn’t know where that was going to put us until the race was about over. I was confident going around that he was going to run big.”
Justify won for the sixth time in 112 days and is the second undefeated Triple Crown winner with Seattle Slew being the first. Justify is the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont without racing at age 2.
“First and foremost, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” Smith said after winning, “for the blessings on this wonderful day. I can’t describe the emotions running through my body right now. I didn’t think he was going to break today, but he left the gate like he was going 440 yards in Ruidoso, New Mexico.”
Jockey Mike Smith’s team won $1.24 million from Derby and $900,000 from the Preakness. The Belmont purse was a total of $1.5 million — the owners collected $800,000. The ownership team would collect a total of $2.94 million in prize money from the three races.
Normally, jockeys get 10 percent of what the owners win. Smith has collected checks for $124,000, $90,000 and $80,000 for a total of $294,000 for his Triple Crown wins. That number gets cut down by 30 percent after Smith pays his agent and valet, the person who gets the jockey’s gear in place.
“It’s just an amazing feat, man,” Smith said after winning the Belmont on Saturday. “It’s the pinnacle of our sport to win the Triple Crown. Wow! We’ve been so blessed to do it and to be from New Mexico and from the state and all of us man. It meant a whole lot to have my mother (Vidoll Daniel) there. It made everything more special and my brother Raymond was there along with my aunt, Elizabeth from Santa Fe. It was an amazing, amazing time. I want my fans to know how proud I am to be from New Mexico.”
Smith talked about riding off into the sunset if he won, but with the success he’s having now, look for him to continue to race for more Triple Crowns. Smith wants to race another three or four years if he stays healthy.
No matter what happens the rest of his career, Smith has put Dexter, New Mexico on the map and will forever be immortal.