His horses spoke for him
by Kyle Williams
reatness, in whatever way achieved, evokes
admiration. This, according to the American Racing Manual, was in
evidence as Seabiscuit enjoyed a record-breaking season in 1937. That tribute
could just as easily have been directed at his trainer Tom Smith.
R. Thomas Smith was born in 1878, among the backwoods
hill country of northwest Georgia, in what Smith himself described as a
log cabin with puncheon floors. A couple of years later, his family would
migrate west to Colorado. As a young lad, Smith rode in some of the last of the
great western cattle drives. His career with horses began in earnest, first as
a ranch hand, then breaking yearlings at the tender age of 13. Within a few
years, Smith would break wild mustangs on the prairie for the British
cavalrys use during the Boer War and a couple of years later, perform
similar duties for the U.S. Cavalry.
turn of the century, Smith landed a foremans job at the vast Unaweep
Cattle Ranch near Grand Junction, Colorado. He stayed on for 20 years and did
just about everything a man can do with horses and cattle.
C. B. Irwin Circus and Racing Stable
When the Unaweep ranch sold in 1921, Smith landed at a
county fair in Wyoming where he handled all the training and shoeing of six
racehorses that were used in rodeo relay races. His success at patching-up
these often-sore steeds to display speed caught the eye of C. B.
Charlie Irwin, a respected horseman and noted racing figure during
the roaring twenties.
stable was perhaps the most sizeable in the country of the time, Irwins
act, was largely of the circus variety, and his cast of characters traveled
North America by rail. A mountain of a man, Ten Ton Irwin, as he
was known to associates, was also a noted raconteur and promoter; sort of a
cowboy P. T. Barnum. Racing Hall of Fame trainer Jimmy Jones would opine years
later that the minute [a man] got any money, Irwin would rob him of it.
He was an old racketeer. Tom Smith was hired as Irwins assistant
trainer and blacksmith in 1923, positions he would hold for 10 years. Before he
would train Irwins better horses, Smith was first tasked with patching-up
old cow ponies for cavalry charges and Indian chases for Irwins wild west
These were tough times for Smith, who was
sleeping on a cot in a horse stall and now caretaker and farrier for upwards of
50 head. Irwin worked his horses as hard as his help, often racing them every
other day. As he nursed their maladies, Smith would concentrate on learning
from the rag-tag lot, while Irwin was racking up the wins and being credited as
the nations leading trainer. Irwin led the nation in Thoroughbred wins in
1923 (147) and 1930 (92).
In the early 1930s,
Irwin sent Smith with a string of horses to train on his own in Cheyenne. He
won 29 races from 30 starts, which surely must have been a record of some sort,
had such records been kept. Shortly thereafter, Irwin sent his top runners with
Smith to race at Longacres. Smith would train at the Renton, Washington, oval
during that tracks first four seasons. In March 1934, Irwin died in an
automobile accident and Smith wound up in Seattle on his own. He trained for
Mrs. C. B. Irwin the rest of that year and the next. In 1935, Smith won 49
races and was the leading trainer at Longacres. Those wins included the Seattle
and Renton Handicaps with Instigator and the Evergreen Handicap with Oriley.
Smith and 1960 National Racing Hall of Fame inductee Ralph Neves, who Smith
used frequently atop many a good horse, both at Longacres and beyond, were
graduates of the famed school of Cowboy Irwin in the old days.
Neves is also among the initial members of the Washington Racing Hall of Fame.
Later, Oriley would help Smith open doors to the
chance of a lifetime. Early the next year, Smith only had that one horse. He
and Oriley spent the winter at Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana, Mexico.
Smith again found himself living out of a stall, this time sharing it with a
young trainer named Noble Threewit. As classy a gentleman and genuine horseman
as there ever was, Threewit had raced there for some time and had even spent a
bit of time with the Oceanic wonder *Phar Lap prior to his record-breaking
performance in the Caliente Handicap of 1932. Threewit trained for George
Giannini, a well-known San Francisco banker and close associate of automobile
magnate Charles S. Howard. Giannini noticed Smiths adroit handling of
Oriley and recommended him as private trainer to his friend.
Known to many as Silent Tom because he
rarely spoke, Smith was often described as an enigma. Certainly, the best
physical description of him from those days comes courtesy of Laura Hillenbrand
in her best selling book, Seabiscuit An American Legend. In 1936,
He was fifty-six but he looked much older. His jaw had a recalcitrant jut
to it that implied a run in with something an errant hoof or an
ill-placed fence post but maybe it was the only shape in which it could
have been drawn. He had a colorless translucence about him that made him seem
as if he were in the earliest stages of progressive invisibility. On the rare
occasions when he took off his gray felt fedora, you had to look hard at his
threadbare head to tell where his gray hair ended and his gray skin began. When
photographed hatless, he had an unsettling tendency to blend with the sky, so
that his eyes hung disembodied in space. Some photographers gave up and drew
his head into the picture by hand, guessing at his outline. When they were
lucky enough to catch him head-on, all his features but that big shovel of a
jaw vanished in the shade of his hat brim, so that all that appeared above his
mouth were his spectacles. Smith almost never looked at cameras anyway. He was
always looking at his horses.
It was his looking
at another mans horse that would change Smiths fate. Legendary
horseman Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons had Seabiscuit for the Phipps
familys Wheatley Stable, among the most potent racing stables in the
country. The Hall of Fame trainer, however, was not able to elicit very much
run out of the diminutive colt. It wasnt that he overlooked him, it was
just that Fitzsimmons had a stable deep in talent and numbers, and Seabiscuit
had not performed among the top tier. Seabiscuit started an astounding 35 times
as a two-year-old, winning five times while mostly racing in claiming company.
As a three-year-old, Fitzsimmons used him as a workmate for Belair
Stables champion and 1935 Triple Crown winner Omaha.
In August of 1936, Howard and Smith had gone east to
Saratoga to buy a good, ready-made horse. Smith convinced Howard to
buy Seabiscuit for $7,500.
Smith later would
relate to B. K. Beckwith, in a story that appeared in his
Recollections column in the October 1957 Thoroughbred of
California, He looked down his nose at me, like he was saying
Who the devil are you? I stared right back at him, I liked his
looks. Reminded me of some darn handy cowponies Id owned. He was on his
way to the post in a three-quarter [six furlong] race. No, I didnt know
his name. Checked on my program for that Seabiscuit, three-year-old,
good breeding. Mr. Howard and I were looking for that kind, if they could show
us anything. He showed me quite a lot. Acted up a bit at the gate, broke
slowly, began to move up on the far turn and coming home he ran over horses.
Won going away in 1:11 4/5. When he came back to the stands, I nodded at him.
Dammed if the little rascal didnt nod back at me kinda like he was paying
me an honor to notice me. Ill see you again, I said. At
Saratoga the two met again and one of the most telling stories out of the Great
Depression era began.
The son of Hard
TackSwing On, by *Whisk Broom II, would subsequently win major races from
coast to coast in the red and white colors of the Howard stable, as well as two
highly publicized match races.
Though a match
between Seabiscuit and Samuel Riddles three-year-old Triple Crown winner
War Admiral was much discussed, meetings between the two stars failed to
materialize at Belmont and Arlington Parks. Bostons Suffolk Downs later
entered the bidding for the much anticipated match race, but things failed to
gel there as well.
Meanwhile, back in California,
Binglin Stables (a partnership of crooner and movie star Bing Crosby and
Howards son Lindsey) imported star *Ligaroti and Seabiscuit met in a
two-horse match race on August 12, 1938 at Del Mar in what was to be a
controversial close decision. Due to the rough riding of both Noel Richards,
aboard *Ligaroti, and George Woolf, astride Seabiscuit, during the nine furlong
race, both riders were suspended for the remainder of the meeting. Woolf
skillfully subbed most of the year for Seabiscuits injured regular rider
Also that summer, there had been talk
of a $25,000 special event to be staged at Longacres to attract
Smith and Seabiscuit, but alas, it wasnt meant to be. Seabiscuit was in
fact assigned 142 pounds for the 38 Longacres Mile, the highest weight to
ever be assigned a Mile nominee. But when he didnt show, Allen Drumheller
won his first Mile with Triplane.
A few months
later, in November 1938, the long anticipated East-West rivalry with War
Admiral finally came to fruition due to the efforts of the young Alfred
Vanderbilt. Though War Admiral was favored for 1 3/16 miles race, dubbed the
Pimlico Special, it would be Seabiscuit who led at every call, taking the race
by four lengths after a walk up start. Seabiscuit was a come from behind horse,
but Smith, knowing that such races are most often won in wire-to-wire fashion,
instructed Woolf, to send his charge to the lead in this epic duel.
The coup de grace for Seabiscuit came in the
1940 Santa Anita Handicap at age seven. The old warrior had been beaten a nose
in that race in each of his previous two starts in 1937 and 1938. In
1939, belayed by injuries, Seabiscuit remained in the barn with an ankle injury
while his stablemate *Kayak II won the race by two lengths. In what was to be
his final start, Seabiscuit, toting 130 pounds, won the Big Cap,
two lengths clear of entrymate *Kayak II, pushing his career earnings to
$457,730, a world record and an enormous sum of money at the time. Seabiscuit
had won nine of his first 47 starts before Smith trained him and he won 24 of
42 starts afterwards. Only seven years later, Seabiscuit died of an apparent
heart attack at Howards Ridgewood Ranch after an undistinguished stud
Beyond the Sea(biscuit)
trained many other notable runners for Howard, but probably none better than
*Kayak II. An Argentine-bred foal of 1935, *Kayak II was also purchased for
around $7,000 and he too won the Santa Anita Handicap. In 1939, *Kayak II won
eight of 11 starts, including Santa Anitas famous hundred-grander. In his
six stakes victories that year, *Kayak II set new track records five times.
Smith was later to state that *Kayak II, who was to be named the nations
champion older male runner of 1939, was his favorite trainee.
As is the case today, when a horse trainer enjoys great
success, suspicions are prevalent and rumors run rampant. Smith rarely spoke,
so suspicions were magnified. He replied to critics in a 1940 newspaper column:
In my estimation, more harm can be done by overworking a horse than by
going easy with him. Thats why I guess I have appeared mysterious; why
stories have been spread of how I sneak horses out at night and work them. The
fairy stories about mystery shoes and magic salves are other things I would
like to correct. I wish I could take a horse and make him win stakes simply by
rubbing a magic salve on his ankles, knees or feet. If I tried, however, to
rush here and there to correct every wrong story spread about me or the horses
I train, I would have time for nothing else.
In 1940, Howards stable led the nation with
earnings of $334,120. While Smith was far behind the 108 wins of leading
trainer Daniel Womedorff that season, his 14 first place finishes helped propel
him to $269,200 to top the earnings list, almost $95,000 ahead of the trainer
who held the number two spot Seabiscuits former conditioner, Sunny
Like Seabiscuit and *Kayak II,
another runner to earn championship honors in the handicap division for Howard
and Smith was Oregon-bred Mioland. A foal of 1937, Mioland was actually
conceived in Washington, having been bred by H. W. Ray, who then sold the colt
to Howard as a three-year-old. Mioland won 15 races from 18 starts under
Smiths handling, including the American Derby and a host of other stakes
and earned $244,270. He was named co-champion handicap male runner in the
nation along with E. S. Moores Big Pebble in 1941.
Near the end of 1943, Smith became ill and was
hospitalized, thus having to relinquish his role as Howards trainer.
Howard latter offered him a job as his farm manager, but Smith declined.
Cream of the Crop
A short time
later, another of Smiths clients, Neil McCarthy, persuaded cosmetics
queen Elizabeth Graham (later Lewis) to turn over her horses to Smith. With
Smiths help, her Maine Chance Stable soon became formidable.
Born Florence Nightingale Graham in Woodbridge,
Ontario, on the final day of 1878, she had opened a beauty salon with partner
Elizabeth Hubbard in 1908. After the business dissolved, Graham coined the name
Elizabeth Arden from her former partner and the Tennyson poem Enoch
In 1944, Graham spent $287,700 for 20
yearlings she had picked out at the Thoroughbred auctions with the help of
Spendthrift Farm master Leslie Combs II and Smith. As of October of the
following year, four of the 20 Beaugay, Star Pilot, Knockdown and They
Say had become stakes winners and collected $264,798 of the beauty
makers money back. An additional seven of the runners had also won by
that point in time.
During Smiths first full
season with Maine Chance in 1945, he trained Beaugay and Star Pilot to filly
and colt champion- ships, respectively, as well as the multiple stakes winners
Colony Boy, Lord Boswell, War Date and War Jeep. The $589,170 in stable
earnings that year was the largest amount ever credited to a female owner in
racing history, and up until that time had only been exceeded once, by the
famed Calumet Farm in 1944. That total once again put Smith atop all North
His totals of 1945 were truly
remarkable, as 18 of the 24 runners that sported the Maine Chance silks that
year were two-year-olds.
A Two-fold Problem
8, 1945, Smith was suspended from racing for a year by The Jockey Club for
being responsible for administering a 2.6 percent solution of the stimulant
ephedrine via an atomizer to Magnific Duel, a cheap three-year-old claimer
owned by Maine Chance, who had won the first race at the old Jamaica Park in
New York on November 1. Though Smith had not specifically authorized stable
foreman Ernest Pevler to administer anything to Magnific Duel, and had been
saddling another horse, Gay Garland, at the time of the incident, under New
York rules of racing the trainer was held responsible.
Soon after his suspension, the normally taciturn Smith
told a Daily Racing Form reporter that, I am absolutely innocent
of any wrongdoing . . . During my 23 years as a trainer I have never done
anything which to my knowledge was in violation of the rules. He told the
Form that he had used both ephedrine and a salt and vinegar mixture,
applied with atomizers, to clear the heads of horses with congested
The case was the most
widely discussed event since the advent of chemical testing and created great
controversy when the affair was taken to court. Technically, Smith was not
suspended, but instead, had his license revoked, thus paving the way for an
appeal. Post race tests on Magnific Duel had proved negative, but The Jockey
Club investigator claimed to have witnessed the illegal act. Smith admitted he
purchased the nasal spray from a drugstore without a prescription and had used
it on himself as well as his horses. After days of testimony, during which
several pharmacologists testified that it would not be possible to stimulate a
horse with the minute amount used, the one year suspension was upheld.
Francis P. Dunne, steward for the New York State Racing
Commission stated: The reason the stewards must take an absolutely firm
attitude in these cases is because any letting down of barriers might lead to
flagrant abuses. We have to be inflexible on the subject of stimulants and
every horseman understands the very explicit ruling that applies to these
Neil McCarthy, a Los Angeles attorney
and horseman who was among Smiths legal counsel, had summed up his case
with: We have here not only a case involving the protection of racing,
but also the reputation of a man who has been in racing for more than 20 years.
It is a two-fold problem.
James took over training the Maine Chance stable during most of the suspension,
which was to last until November 1, 1946.
Kentucky Derby Winning Trainer
Two days prior to the 1946 Kentucky Derby, a terrible
fire at a racetrack in Chicago destroyed 22 of the two-year-olds owned by Maine
Chance Farm. Only two juveniles owned by Maine Chance survived, as War Fan and
Jet Pilot had been shipped to Churchill Downs just days earlier with the
stables three Kentucky Derby contenders. Assault won that 72nd Derby,
with Maine Chance runners Lord Bowell, Knockdown and Perfect Bahram finishing
fourth, fifth and ninth, respectively, under the younger Smiths care.
Returning to Maine Chance after the suspension,
Smith conditioned Jet Pilot to win the 1947 Kentucky Derby. In one of the most
thrilling Kentucky Derbies in history, Jet Pilot, under Eric Guerin, held off
C. V. Whitneys Phalanx and Calumet Farms Faultless in a blanket
finish. It was the first time in the history of the race that the placing
judges had to examine a photograph before posting the winner. (It was said
Ralph Neves had turned down the winning mount due to a marathon gin rummy
session.) The race marked Smiths third attempt to win the Derby, as he
had finished fourth in the classic with Mioland in 1940, and fourth again the
following year with Porters Cap.
of the winning son of *Blenheim II, I didnt do much with the horse
trained him very lightly. Youd be surprised if you saw his work
sheets. He had to be handled carefully. He added, I train horses by
being with them all the time and noticing how they are doing. Youve got
to know your horses.
A few months later,
Smith left the sometimes eccentric Graham to train for Mrs. Ada Rices
Danada Farms and had considerable success with multiple stakes winners such as
Model Cadet (Smiths final Derby starter, who finished seventh in the 1949
Run for the Roses) and Admiral Lea.
late 1949, Smith reunited with Maine Chance, but only for a brief period. He
then trained only his own horses for several years but took over the Maine
Chance stable for the third time in 1954. Shortly thereafter, he and Graham
again parted company and Smith retired.
be no doubt that in a short span (1938-48), Tom Smith was one of the top
trainers in America. During that period, he trained seven runners to win in
excess of $100,000, a remarkable achievement for the time.
A Mystical Communion
borrowing from Hillebrands Seabiscuit, In his course from
meadows and rangeland to backroads and bullrings, Tom Smith had cultivated an
almost mystical communion with horses. He knew their minds, and how to sway
them. He knew their bodies and how they telegraphed emotion and sensation, and
his hands were a tonic for their pain. He followed no formulas, no regimens, no
superstitious rituals. He approached each horse as a distinct individual and
followed his own lights and experience to care for it. Horses blossomed in his
Perhaps Smith spoke so infrequently
because he was listening so hard. Horses speak with the smallest of motions.
Smith heard and saw everything. Hotwalkers leading horses around the shedrow to
cool them out after workouts would see him squatting downs on the floor,
staring straight ahead, turning the horses over in his mind. The grooms could
circle the barn and come again, and there hed be, exactly as he was
before. Sometimes, he would become so absorbed in watching a horse he
wouldnt move for hours.
training was a long, quiet conversation. He was baffled by other peoples
inability to grasp what he was doing. Its easy to talk to horses if
you understand his language, he once said. Horses stay the same
from the day they are born until the day they die, they are only changed by the
way people treat them.
Tom Smith died
on January 23, 1957 in a Glendale, California, sanitarium as the result of a
stroke a couple of months before. He was 78. He left wife Janet, daughters
Erline Talbot and Vera Smith, son James W. Smith and a host of followers of the
sport of kings.
for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.