Tom Smith - Washington Racing Hall of Fame

His horses spoke for him

by Kyle Williams

G 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 cavalry’s use during the Boer War and a couple of years later, perform similar duties for the U.S. Cavalry.
    Around the turn of the century, Smith landed a foreman’s 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.”
    Although his stable was perhaps the most sizeable in the country of the time, Irwin’s 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 Irwin’s assistant trainer and blacksmith in 1923, positions he would hold for 10 years. Before he would train Irwin’s better horses, Smith was first tasked with patching-up old cow ponies for cavalry charges and Indian chases for Irwin’s wild west show.
    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 nation’s 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 track’s 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 Smith’s 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.”

The Biscuit
    It was his looking at another man’s horse that would change Smith’s fate. Legendary horseman “Sunny” Jim Fitzsimmons had Seabiscuit for the Phipps’ family’s 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 wasn’t 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 Stable’s 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 I’d owned. He was on his way to the post in a three-quarter [six furlong] race. No, I didn’t 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 didn’t nod back at me kinda like he was paying me an honor to notice me. ‘I’ll 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 Tack—Swing 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 Riddle’s three-year-old Triple Crown winner War Admiral was much discussed, meetings between the two stars failed to materialize at Belmont and Arlington Parks. Boston’s 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 Howard’s 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 Seabiscuit’s injured regular rider Red Pollard.
    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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 Howard’s Ridgewood Ranch after an undistinguished stud career.

Beyond the Sea(biscuit)
    Smith 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 Anita’s 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 nation’s 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. That’s 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, Howard’s 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 – Seabiscuit’s former conditioner, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.
    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 Smith’s 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. Moore’s Big Pebble in 1941.
    Near the end of 1943, Smith became ill and was hospitalized, thus having to relinquish his role as Howard’s trainer. Howard latter offered him a job as his farm manager, but Smith declined.

Cream of the Crop
    A short time later, another of Smith’s clients, Neil McCarthy, persuaded cosmetics queen Elizabeth Graham (later Lewis) to turn over her horses to Smith. With Smith’s 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 Arden.
    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 maker’s money back. An additional seven of the runners had also won by that point in time.
    During Smith’s 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 American trainers.
    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
    On November 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 respiratory passages.”
    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 cases.”
    Neil McCarthy, a Los Angeles attorney and horseman who was among Smith’s 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.”
    Smith’s son, 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 stable’s 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 Smith’s 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. Whitney’s Phalanx and Calumet Farm’s 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 Smith’s 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 Porter’s Cap.
    Smith said of the winning son of *Blenheim II, “I didn’t do much with the horse – trained him very lightly. You’d 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. You’ve got to know your horses.”
    A few months later, Smith left the sometimes eccentric Graham to train for Mrs. Ada Rice’s Danada Farms and had considerable success with multiple stakes winners such as Model Cadet (Smith’s final Derby starter, who finished seventh in the 1949 “Run for the Roses”) and Admiral Lea.
    In 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.
    There can 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
    Again, borrowing from Hillebrand’s 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 care.
    “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 he’d be, exactly as he was before. Sometimes, he would become so absorbed in watching a horse he wouldn’t move for hours.
    “For Smith, training was a long, quiet conversation. He was baffled by other people’s inability to grasp what he was doing. ‘It’s 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.

Click here for a complete list of all the Washington Hall of Fame inductees.

WASHINGTON THOROUGHBRED, August 2004, page 658

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