Jockey with Santa Fe roots aiming for Triple Crown
Walking from Point A to Point B without rock star treatment is one of the reasons jockey Mike Smith — one of New Mexico’s most celebrated professional athletes — enjoys returning to his roots at least once a year.
Smith, who was raised in Dexter and developed as a horse racing master in Santa Fe, will mount Justify on Saturday afternoon with a shot at the Triple Crown. Already the winner at the Preakness Stakes and Kentucky Derby, Justify runs in the Belmont Stakes with a chance to become just the 13th thoroughbred to sweep the sport’s three most important races.
For Smith, 52, it would be the highlight of a Hall of Fame career in which he has earned over $312 million and captured half a dozen wins in the Triple Crown series.
On Friday, he took a few minutes to escape an NBC camera crew shadowing his every move to field a few questions from The New Mexican about his chances Saturday.
“I mean, yeah, this would be the biggest accomplishment for anyone in our sport,” he said. “Fortunately I’ve got some family and friends here, like always. It’s going to be a moment to remember, for sure.”
Being back in Elmont, N.Y., is a homecoming, of sorts. Smith broke into competitive racing at the age of 11 in Roswell, then won his first professional race at the Downs at Santa Fe just five years later. He was a fixture at the Downs, then drifted through the Midwest before moving in the late 1980s to New York, where he spent countless hours at legendary Belmont Park.
He now makes his home in California, but Smith’s run with Justify takes him back East for a shot at racing immortality.
“I’m not a superstitious person, but I will say a little prayer [Friday night] before I go to bed and again in the morning, then follow the strategy I’ve always followed in moments like this — stay out of the horse’s way,” Smith said.
While most of his mother’s side of the family still reside in the Roswell area, Smith’s ties to Santa Fe are as strong as ever. He dropped out of high school his freshman year, and by 16 he was a professional at the Downs. He won his first race there in 1982 — the first of more than 5,400 during his career.
“I’ve never had any children of my own, but when I think about Mike, it’s with the pride of someone who considers him a son,” said Nedra Matteucci, Smith’s paternal aunt and the owner of the renowned Nedra Matteucci Galleries in downtown Santa Fe.
She and her sister, Elizabeth Brockmann, host an annual party for Smith around Christmas.
“Mike made me promise to throw him a big party even if he loses,” Matteucci joked. “He also said he wants an even bigger party if he wins, but he didn’t say who was going to pay for it.”
Dustin Belyeu remembers Smith a little differently. Smith was already well into his professional career by the time Belyeu reached grade school. Cousins separated by 11 years, the pair know each other well enough that Belyeu can get a feel for Smith’s prospects just by watching him on TV — which he will do Saturday in a quiet room in his Santa Fe home.
“Everyone says this about Mike, but his mood is always so positive and upbeat,” Belyeu said. “If you know him, you know his preparation is better than anyone else. In a lot of ways he’s the LeBron [James] of his sport. He might be the best jockey of all time.”
The numbers back that up. Smith’s 26 wins in Breeder’s Cup races are the most of all time, and he was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame 15 years ago. He has twice won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and this year alone he has nearly $6.5 million in earnings.
“Yet every time he comes to Santa Fe, he can practically walk down the street and no one knows who he is,” said Brockmann.
Both she and her husband, Santa Fe attorney Jim Brockmann, are in New York for the race. They were at the track all day Friday and said NBC has been following Smith around for several days as part of a feature to be aired before the race.
Smith also had an interview with CNN scheduled for Friday morning that was canceled. It gave him a little extra time to do what he truly loves before a big race; spend time at the track, spend time with the animals and get a little quiet time for himself.
“I’m not sure everyone in New Mexico has a good feel for how big of an event this race is,” said Jim Brockmann. “It’s probably just like when you’re a kid going to the biggest circus you can think of; people and activity everywhere. There’s so much excitement, people asking for selfies with him and approaching him for autographs. He can’t get a minute to himself and, really, it’s unbelievable to watch.”
The Brockmanns said they’ll happily get caught up in the excitement come post time. While her sister and extended family will surely be watching back home, Elizabeth Brockmann will be in the box seats with her husband screaming with every stride.
“I always bet on Mike even if he thinks he might not win,” Jim Brockmann said. “He’s family. Always bet on family.”