Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith returns to New Mexico
RUIDOSO, N.M. (AP) — Mike Smith became the 12th jockey in history and the only one from New Mexico to win the Triple Crown after flying across the finish line atop 3-year-old Justify in June to a roar of cheers at Belmont Park in New York.
Smith was born in Roswell but forged his love of horse racing while growing up in the farming community of Dexter.
“Winning the Triple Crown with Justify was an amazing feeling,” said Smith, who at 52 is the oldest jockey to ride the same horse to wins at the three largest races. “It was a team effort. It takes so much from so many people to accomplish what we did.”
Justify’s victory came just three years after another horse, American Pharoah, broke a 37-year drought of Triple Crown winners.
The El Paso Times reports that the excitement, commotion and joy haven’t slowed for Smith.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez proclaimed July 8th as “Mike E. Smith Day,” as the jockey returned to his home state for the first time since winning the Triple Crown. He spent the day signing autographs and raising money for the Permanently Disabled Jockey Fund at Ruidoso Downs Race Track & Casino.
Smith was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2003. He has two Kentucky Derby wins, two Preakness wins, three Belmont wins, and 26 victories in Breeders’ Cup races. He has won nearly 5,500 races and is a two-time Eclipse Award winner for outstanding jockey.
It was in New Mexico, with his uncle, trainer Thomas Vallejos, where Smith began his lifelong love affair with horses and racing.
“I trained the first horse he ever won on,” said Vallejos, a Dexter resident. “We are very proud of Mike. He was a natural at being a jockey.”
Smith began competing in match races when he was 11. At 16, he won his first race as a licensed jockey at the Downs at Santa Fe.
Smith didn’t stay in New Mexico long after his racing career took off but he raced in Santa Fe and at Sunland Park. He galloped horses at Ruidoso Downs and regularly visited El Paso.
Smith said Vallejos was his earliest mentor.
“My uncle Thomas helped me a great deal, and I still remember my time as a young kid in New Mexico,” Smith said. “I loved horses. I just wanted to learn so much. I wanted to be the best I could. I had hopes of being the best jockey I could be, but I knew it would take hard work and patience.”
Smith, who now lives in Southern California, has blitzed across every major track in the United States and on some of the sport’s best horses.
Racetracks like Santa Anita, Del Mar, Saratoga in New York, Belmont Park, and Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs are among his favorites. Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, Nebraska, that closed several years ago was one of his lesser-known favorites.
“It never gets old riding in the big races and never gets old being at so many great tracks,” he said. “My career has taken me to so many great places and I’m grateful for that.”
Smith is the best-known jockey in a state with five racetracks and the Sunland Derby, a prep race for the Kentucky Derby. He returned to Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino in 2009 and won the Sunland Derby aboard Kelly Leak.
Bob Baffert, who trained Justify and 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, called Smith one of the best jockeys of all time. He described Smith as humble, gracious and respectful and said he handles pressure well.
Smith is known as “Big Money Mike” for his performances in the sport’s biggest races, but success, fame and money don’t define Smith. He said he tries to remain humble and focuses on loving his family and helping others.
Frank Reyes, a 27-year-old jockey who rides on the New Mexico circuit, has never met Smith but said he serves as an inspiration.
“He is experienced and he has a lot of confidence,” Reyes said. “He gives jockeys hope that they can one day be great.”
Information from: El Paso Times, http://www.elpasotimes.com