The legendary Charlie Whittingham who was Santa Anita California’s most successful trainer of all time and a three-time Eclipse Award winner? Or Alberta’s R.K. ‘Red’ Smith? At first blush one would think it would be Whittingham, whose long career saw him train such great horses as Ferdinand - the 1986 Kentucky Derby and 1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic - and Sunday Silence, who won the 1989 Derby and Preakness. But you’d be wrong.
Smith has won 2,601 races and counting; Whittingham won 2,533. “I was surprised when I looked that up too,” said Smith, 78, as he sits in his familiar tack room - fittingly the first shedrow in the main barn compound at Northlands. “That’s a lot of races. A whole lot of races,” said Smith who doesn’t brag but even he has to admit that his total trips to the winner’s circle - which are 45th all-time in North America - have forged quite a life’s journey and story.
“It’s unbelievable really. Has time gone by that fast? Where did the time go?” Where indeed.
But then Smith, who was elected to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2004, could probably get a moose to sing opera or train an elephant to tap dance so that when it came to training horses to run faster than they should it all came pretty naturally.
“Right from the start I enjoyed the horses,” said Smith, who, given that he grew up almost right across the street from Hastings Park racetrack in Vancouver, didn’t take long to wander over there to see what was going on. “My parents didn’t go the races - my mom was a stay-at-home housewife and my dad was a millwright, but a friend of mine did and I tagged along with him.
“At first I sold what was called the Green Sheet,” he said of a tip sheet that handicapped that day’s racing and gave Smith a few extra dollars while he was still going to school. Then things, as Smith would say, simply "Compounded".
“It wasn’t long before I go to know a few people and got a few jobs walking hots and paddocking horses,” said Smith, who still has a black and white photo, taken on Aug. 8, 1952 of himself standing in the winner’s circle, at Vancouver’s Exhibition Park with Porters Hat and trainer Doris Petty. “That was the first horse I ever paddocked and he won,” reminisced Smith, who was a gangly, long legged 14-year-old at the time.
From there Smith would groom horses for the likes of Jack Diamond before Andy Smithers, a B.C. trainer who would make his name in Ontario, gave Red a job that lasted for four years and which provided the foundation to make Smith one of the best trainers on the continent.
Going out on his own, Smith opened a public stable in Alberta in 1964. One of his first clients was Cy Patrick, who had half a dozen horses including the likes of Common Market, who won, among others, the Western Canada Handicap in 1965 and the Klondike in 1966.
But it was a man named Bory Margolus who would change Smith’s life. “He spoiled me,” Smith said of Margolus, who owned Sealy Mattresses and who, in 1977, was named Canada’s owner of the Year - the same year that Smith won the Sovereign Award as Canada’s top trainer. “He let me do my thing. Without question he was the best man I ever worked for,” said Smith.
Unquestionably, the reverse was also true. From 1970 to 1982 under Smith’s guidance Margolus’ Elmbrook Farms won just about every race there was - mostly with horses they bred themselves out of their own broodmares.
With an indoor and an outdoor training track and two large barns in Gibbons, 37 kilometres north-east of Edmonton, Margolus would hold an annual barbecue and baseball tournament for all the backstretch employees. Elmbrook was the leading money-winning stable seven times in the 1970s. Elmbrook was especially potent with two-year-olds sending out the winner of Calgary’s Stampede Futurity four years in a row: Trochu Joe in 1972; Sea Reason in 1973; Western Dangler in 1974 and Careless Word in 1975. All four were ridden by jockey Rick Hedge, who had first call for Smith and Elmbrook in those days.
Three of the four - Careless Word, who was purchased privately was the only exception - were all bred by Elmbrook from their own mares and their three foundation sires - Reasonably Fair, Dangblastit and Indefatigable. After missing in 1976, Elmbrook and Smith then won the 1977 Futurity with Tojero. Amazingly, Smith started all five of those horses in claiming races - fortunately for Elmbrook and Smith without anyone dropping a claim.
Of the quintet of Futurity winners Smith said “Sea Reason was by far the best. “He was a big horse and very strong. He won everything around here except the Canadian Derby and the Speed to Spare because he couldn’t go a mile and three-eighths. “He was my Fancy As in those days,” said Smith which is high praise indeed given that Fancy As won 16 of his 26 starts - including 10 of his first 11 races - for earnings of $672,746. All that from a horse who was purchased by Smith’s wife, Linda, for just $3,200 at the 1999 Manitoba Yearling Sale.
“And that was only because I had a six-horse van and we only had bought five yearlings so there was an empty stall. I had really gone to Winnipeg to buy one horse in particular,” Smith recalled of an exceptionally good looking colt with a pedigree as long and strong as his hind-quarters. When the bidding got to $25,000, Red stopped raising his arm. “I told Linda if she wanted to buy another colt to go ahead; I was going to have a drink.” It was just about then they led Fancy As - a tall, skinny late foal with long hair - into the arena. "I didn't know how much to bid," Linda remembers. "Someone bid $3,000. I said $3,200. They dropped the hammer.”
From the outset, there was always something special about Fancy As. "The way he covered the ground. The way he loped around in the paddock with the other yearlings we had bought. So easy and flowing," says Linda. "There was just something different about him. "My office at the farm looked straight into the paddock. I remember saying to Red one winter morning as Fancy As was running through the snow, 'Wouldn't it be funny if he turned out to be the stakes horse?’”
It was no joke. Fancy As won his debut by six lengths, won the Edmonton Juvenile by eight lengths, another stake by nearly 12 lengths and the Canadian Juvenile by four and three-quarters. He was only getting started. The following year Fancy As won the Canadian Derby, the B.C. Derby and then, against older horses, the B.C. Premiers.
“Fancy always came from behind but he always kept the leaders in sight. He made it thrilling,” said Red. “He dominated when he ran.” Offers to purchase Fancy As came from everywhere including one - for $600,000 - by Saudi Arabian prince Ahmed bin Salman. Red and Linda turned them all down.
"How often do you get a chance to train a horse like that?" said Smith. "The government would take half of it anyway. We were going to have some fun.”
Smith also won the Canadian Derby for Margolus in 1977. But it was a tainted win. Margolus’ Western Reason finished second in a three-horse photo for place but, admid a great deal of controversy, was moved up to first when the stewards ruled that the first horse across the wire that Saturday afternoon, R.J.’s Diamond - ridden by Hedge - had interfered with third-place finisher Honey Speed.
“It was the stewards’ decision that Hedge had tried to force his way through,” supervisor of racing at that time Marc Jenkins said. “(Hedge) tried to move between Western Reason and Honey Speed but there wasn’t enough room He should have taken back.” When the inquiry sign went on the crowd started booing. When the stewards disqualified R.J.’s Diamond the boos got even louder.
“This wasn’t the way I wanted to win it,” said Margolus in a 1977 story in Canadian Horse Magazine. “I wish they’d never have taken R.J.’s Diamond’s number down. I don’t want to win anything this way, especially the Canadian Derby. It’s been a long time trying and now that I’ve won it I don’t feel any happiness.”
“I tried to tell Bory that the crowd wasn’t booing him but he didn’t buy it,” said Smith. “It broke his heart to win it that way.” Smith, who estimates that he was Alberta’s leading trainer “at least 15 times” has no intention of getting out of the racing business.
“I’m semi-retired now; I’ve really downsized,” said Smith, who also campaigned horses like Ky Alta, Alberta’s Horse of the Year in 1981, Fustukian, who was Alberta’s Horse of the Year in 1984, Two Ticky, who was named Alberta’s champion aged horse in 1995 and 1997 as well as top campaigners like Edie’s Prize, Scottish Time, Inposition and Tillano. “Allan Bott runs the barn. I still make the decisions but as far as the labour goes, no.
“I’ll probably never retire. I had the same conversation with Harold Barroby the other day,” Smith said of B.C.’s longtime trainer who will join him in the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame on Aug. 9. “I said to Harold what I do if I retired? What would we do? “I still like coming to the track,” who has had prostrate cancer and a triple by-pass in 2006. “I still love winning races.”
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