Craig Smith’s mother, Jennifer Smith, was a trainer and a steward at Winnipeg’s Assiniboina Downs and is currently married to trainer Rod Cone. Craig’s dad Doug Smith was a trainer. So was his grandfather Bob Carlyle. So guess what Craig does for a living.
“I knew from when I was pretty young that training thoroughbreds was what I wanted to do,” said Smith, who is having another solid year and is in the mix for leading trainer honours at Century Mile. “My parents didn’t want me to end up at the track. Like just about every parent they wanted me to go to university. They said the track would always be there."
“But it just didn’t work out that way. I took out my trainer’s license in 2002 - pretty much as soon as I finished high school,” said Smith, 36, who won one of four stakes races this past weekend impressively taking the $40,000 Sonoma Stakes with Music At Work on Friday evening.
“Obviously I had a lot of people who helped me out at the beginning and gave me advice. My parents for sure. Bill Matier, who I worked for and broke babies at Bill and Shirley’s farm; I learned a lot from Bill. And Tom Proctor helped me out in Tampa Bay. He kind of took me under his wing when we were in in Florida from 2009-2012 in the winter months after racing was done for the year in Alberta."
After galloping horses and working on the starting gate in 2003, Smith went out on his own in 2004. “I had just four horses to start with. My dad, Doug, owned two of them. Al Pitchko gave me one and my mom and Rod gave me one when they went to Fort Erie. That was it.”
That’s a big departure from where Smith is now with a stable of 42 horses - half of which are two-year-olds. “I’m fortunate to have a lot of good, young horses. It’s something we’ve been working on the last few years. We’ve been buying more two-year-olds and we’ve been able to develop them a little better. There’s some good money available for two-year-olds; it’s a good situation to be in. This has been a really good year; I’ve been very fortunate,” said Smith who has won 18 of 84 starts this year including at Arizona’s Turf Paradise, where he has winter trained the last couple of years.
“I say fortunate because in this game you can do everything right - enter your horses in the best spots, get the best riders you can and still not win races. We’ve all seen that. Last year was a little slower than I would have liked,” said Smith, who still won 34 races.
“Before that I had some good years at Northlands,” continued Smith who won 43 races in 2018, 48 races in 2017 and 45 times in 2016. When his horses aren’t winning they are generally really close evidenced by a 45 top-three percentage in his career for earnings of $3.5 million. From 2015 to 2018 his win-place-show percentage was above 50 per cent. He also has almost as many career seconds (358) as he has wins (378).
“Foremost, you always want to win. But as long as they are running good that’s the main thing,” said Smith, whose older brother, Steve, is a track veterinarian. “The last five or six years we seemed to have found our stride. We’ve been doing something that works pretty good most of the time, though, of course, not all of the time.
“Persistence pays off. I’ve got a great barn crew and wonderful owners. Those are two of the biggest reasons why my barn has been pretty successful over the last bunch of years. Not to single any one of my owners out but True North Stables owned by Keith Johns has been the epitome of a great owner. He’s been with me for 10 years and, like my other owners, he’s been very easy to train for.”
It was True North that gave Smith his first stakes win, which Smith said is probably his favourite moment. “I’ve been fortunate to win a bunch of stakes but you never forget your first one.” That indelible moment came in 2013 in the first running of the Red Smith Handicap when Plethora knocked off the hot favourite Claresmiezie, whose son Sir Miezie, ran third in Sunday’s Canadian Juvenile. “I remember Claresmiezie looked really hard to beat but Plethora went to the lead and ran them off their feet. Plethora went as fast as she could and they couldn’t catch her.”
Friday night Music At Work gave Smith his most recent stakes win. “What can I say? Music At Work is better now than she’s ever been,” he said of the three-year-old filly who tracked the speed in the Sonoma and then kicked into high gear winning by three and a half lengths.
“Music At Work is a big horse that has learned to rate and stalk and then pounce which is just what she did on Friday. She’s not an easy horse to train; she’s hard and difficult to gallop. When you work her she wants to go as hard and as fast as she can. But when she runs in races she doesn’t do that. She’ll rate in races which is just what she did in the Sonoma. The key is to keep her settled down as much as possible. We don’t do too much with her in the mornings so that we have something left in the evening races. And she got a really good ride from Antonio Whitehall. Antonio has done very well for me all year and he gave her a really great trip. I was really impressed by how easy she went by those other horses when she made her move. She was still in hand at the quarter pole. It always feels good when you get to the quarter pole and your rider hasn’t moved yet.”
The victory was the third - and second stake - in 10 starts for Music At Work who also won the Liz Pride at Assiniboia Downs this spring. Outside of her debut and then her last start of 2019, Music At Work has always been very consistent with a second and three thirds. “In her debut she got bumped hard away from the gate and in her last start last year I don’t really know what happened. Maybe she just had enough of racing for the year.”
Smith has also sent out Intent to Strike to a track record performance on July 31 when he went wire-to-wire and won by eight lengths stopping the clock in 1:36.01 for the one-mile distance in an allowance/optional claiming race. “He’s now two for two this year,” said Smith of the six-year-old, formerly Ontario-based gelding, who also won easily in his first start of the season - winning by six lengths in another allowance/optional claimer.
This past weekend Smith also sent out one of his talented two-year-olds, Shotthrutheheart, to an impressive debut overcoming a long lead set by the highly regarded Bound to Be Smart. Owned by Gary and Janet Kropp and the Dialed In Racing Stable, Shotthrutheheart won by two and a quarter widening lengths.
STOCK REPORT - Aside from The Sonoma there were three other stakes races on tap this past weekend at Century Mile. Also on Friday She Likes to Party won the six-furlong Princess Margaret Stakes by a demolishing 14 and a half lengths. She had previously won her only other start, at Iowa’s Prairie Meadows, by six lengths in a wide open maiden race going five panels. She Likes to Party was a $25,000 (US) purchase by trainer Greg Tracy for owner Don Danard. Like Music At Work, She Likes to Party was ridden by Whitehall and certainly appears to be the real deal.
The two stakes on Sunday were the Canadian Juvenile and the Count Lathum. In the former Dad’s Legacy ran down Common Knowledge, who was sent to Edmonton from Prairie Meadows, in the final strides in his impressive career debut. Despite his connections - trained by Tim Rycroft and owned by Riversedge - Dad’s Legacy paid $33.60 to win.
Bang On, the odds-on-favourite, trained by Smith, finished fourth after a slow start that left him five wide and then getting shuffled back around the final turn.
Bang On had won his debut by a length and a half as the odds-on favourite. “We new from early on that he was a pretty nice horse” said Smith, who claimed foul against Dad’s Legacy but which the stewards dismissed.
As for the Count Lathum, the Canadian Derby picture got tossed around when upset specialist trainer Elige Bourne sent out Rail Hugger to a $23.30 triumph, overcoming traffic problems and finding just enough room to win by a length and a quarter over Real Grace. Favourite Maskwecis, who was coming off three consecutive victories, finished third after being wide both early and late. The second favourite Dune d’Oro, trained by Smith and a winner of two stakes in Winnipeg, finished seventh after experiencing traffic problems of his own.
As well, the Sept. 18 Alberta Yearling Sale which will be conducted on line by Direct Livestock Marketing Systems (DLMS), Esquirol Farms will hold their own sale of 27 weanlings, yearlings and two- and three-year-olds at their new farm 25 minutes east of Century Mile on Sept. 12 and 13. For further information go to www.esquirolfarms.ca
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