When you've spent as much time around thoroughbred horses as Hamilton Smith, most romantic notions about the sport get left behind along the way.
Yet, even a guy with more than 40 years in the business couldn't keep his stomach from doing a few somersaults early this week as he crossed the Kentucky state line on his drive to Churchill Downs.
It was the maiden trip to horse racing's most hallowed ground for the 67-year-old Smith. He was making the trip with one lofty goal in mind — win Saturday in the Kentucky Derby with his first entry in the race.
"I've been in this business a long time," said Smith, who trains 50-to-1 morning odds longshot Done Talking. "You always look for these kinds of horses. You've got to have the right kind of owner that's willing to put up the kind of money it takes to go to the derby or a big race like this. It's been a dream come true for me."
Smith spends most of his time training horses at tracks in thoroughbred-rich Maryland. He also has become a summertime fixture in New Kent at Colonial Downs, where he won the trainer championship seven times during the thoroughbred meet, but he has company in this first Kentucky Derby experience.
Sheldon Russell, who has worked with Smith-trained horses many times in Maryland and at Colonial Downs, will ride Done Talking in the Kentucky Derby. It'll be Russell's first Kentucky Derby mount. Done Talking, a brown Kentucky-bred colt, also is providing his owners from the Maryland-based Skeedattle Stable with their first Kentucky Derby trip.
"I'm sure I'm just going to go numb and go into a completely different zone," said Russell, a 24-year-old Louisiana native who grew up in South Africa and England, and who is the defending thoroughbred riding champion at Colonial Downs.
"I'm sure things are going to go through my head like, 'Wow, did we actually make it here? Is this actually happening?' I'm really excited and I'm just really happy I've got this opportunity so early in my career."
Done Talking had to make a late rally just to be included in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby field. After Done Talking finished 10th in March in the Grade III Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y., Smith was at a loss. It was the worst performance of Done Talking's seven race career, which otherwise hadn't included a finish worse than fourth.
"He just didn't run his race and didn't perform that day," Smith said. "We've been scratching our heads ever since that race. Horses will do that every now and again, but he's run every race pretty honest other than that one."
Russell wasn't atop Done Talking for the Gotham Stakes, but he was for the next race — the $500,000 Grade III Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course near Chicago. Done Talking came from off the lead in the 14-horse field to win the by three-quarters of a length as a 13-1 longshot, earning the winner's share of $300,000.
It was Russell's second win on Done Talking, including an allowance race win at Philadelphia Park in November, but the Illinois Derby victory ended up being a critically important payday.
The Illinois win brought Done Talking's graded stakes earnings to $311,000. The Kentucky Derby field is limited to 20 horses, so the field is pulled from the top 20 earners in graded stakes races among 3-year-olds. Optimizer has the lowest graded stakes earnings ($184,000) in the Kentucky Derby field this year.
Done Talking could've taken a much different path if he had been sold as a yearling, as was the original plan. Smith's brother, Franklin, who operates a training center for promising yearlings and 2-year-olds in Elloree, S.C., changed the minds of the Skeedattle Stable owners.
"They bred him to sell," Hamilton said. "My brother looked him over and liked the (horse). He told the owners, 'If you don't get a certain price for him, I wouldn't sell him. I'd keep him.' That's what they did."
While Done Talking likely will go off in the Kentucky Derby as one of the longest shots on the board, he does have impressive pedigree.
He was sired by Broken Vow, a former multiple graded stakes winner whose progeny has been extremely successful (43 stakes winners, including 16 graded, through mid-April). Done Talking's dam, Dixie Talking, won the Grade III Cicada Stakes in 2005 at Aqueduct. Done Talking's grandfather, Unbridled, won the Florida Derby, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Breeders Cup Classic in 1990.
Now, with the preparation behind him, Hamilton hopes to make his first trip to Churchill Downs an unforgettable one with what would be the most rewarding victory of his career.
"It's a special track," Hamilton said. "They say when they get the horses in the paddock and they walk out on that racetrack and they start playing that 'My Old Kentucky Home' it overwhelms a lot of people, but I want to experience it. I'm looking forward to experiencing it. It's a great situation to be in."
WHEN: 6:24 p.m. post time Saturday.
WHERE: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
TV: NBC from 4-7 p.m.
PURSE: $2 million.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun