On a cool Saturday morning, Hamilton A. Smith — the programs call him that, but most every acquaintance calls him Ham or Hammy — is doing his best to do as he always has.
He moves around his barn at Laurel Park, working his staff. His rapid-fire delivery is steady, always, and his humor wry. But he can be sarcastic, too.
"You're never quite sure how to take him," says Sheldon Russell, the 24-year-old who is Maryland's leading jockey.
Smith does this on purpose, keeping his riders and other workers — he's never had an actual assistant, like many trainers — on edge.
His nurturing is saved for the horses. He's a hands-on trainer, has been for his 36-year career.
"I like to watch 'em the whole way," he said. "Get to know 'em, see how they respond to everything."
Smith, 67, lives for routine. On this late April day, it is hard to adhere to. He's less than 24 hours from boarding a van bound for Churchill Downs where, on Saturday, he'll saddle Done Talking — a 50-1 shot — in the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby.
He had never trained a horse entered in a Triple Crown race.
"Doesn't matter who you are or where you are or how your luck's been," he said. "That's what you want."
Though few people at Laurel mention the impending trip, there's more attention paid than usual to Done Talking and Smith, who generally blends in at a place he's called home for so long.
That has changed, for at least a day.
There's a camera clicking incessantly nearby. Smith cannot help but turn and momentarily stare into the lens when he hears the blur of sound. As the photographer sways and stoops, hoping to get Smith's silhouette outlined against the sky, Smith glances downward.
"This, I'm not used to," he says before walking away.
Maryland horse comes through
Smith comes from a South Carolina farming family, but fell in love with horse racing as a boy when his older brother worked as a jockey. He galloped horses and began training in New England in the early 1970s then worked in Maryland later in the decade before settling here.
A string of strong years in the 1980s gave him the chance to move to New York, to work with owners more intent on paying big money on promising horses. But he was raising a family in Maryland — his wife, JoAnn, "does everything" both at the house and around the barn, where his twin daughters and son spent much of their youth — and said he felt content with his work and held out hope he'd get a great horse.
"There's never been any question whether he could do it," Franklin Smith, his younger brother, said. "The question has always been whether he'd get the horse. Just like the question in a big race is whether you get the luck."
Franklin Smith made sure his brother would get a chance. When he spotted an energetic colt on his South Carolina training farm — he breaks about 150 horses a year — and found out he had been bred in Maryland, he pushed the ownership group, Skeedattle Associates, to keep him and send him to his brother.
Hammy had nearly given up.
"Getting to the Derby wasn't on my mind maybe the way it once was," he said, standing near Done Talking's barn off the first turn at Churchill Downs. "At this point, I just feel fortunate."
Skeedattle Associates, owned by a trio of long-time friends from Atholton High School who live on the same road near Clarksville, bred the colt from sire Broken Vow and dam Dixie Talking, who traces back to 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Northern Dancer (whose damsire was Native Dancer of Sagamore Farm). Willie White and Lou Rehak went into business together more than 30 years ago, selling overhead doors. Together with Bob Orndorff, they've been in horse racing for 20 years. Smith was their first trainer, after they bought "two halves of two horses" he worked with.
They've employed other trainers throughout the years, and are heavily involved with their horses. They go to the barn on most mornings, and many are spent watching Smith.
"He's a true horseman," White said. "There's a lot of trainers out here, but he knows horses."
Said Rehak: "For years and years he's gotten here at 3 or 4 in the morning. And then he trains every horse, looks at every horse. But he's back in the afternoon, at feed time, and he's setting the feed out himself. He deserves this."
Finally, a chance
At Churchill Downs, Smith and his small team have remained close-knit and barely noticed. The Daily Racing Form described him as a trainer "99 percent of the Churchill backstretch would not know from a van driver." Russell, a promising jockey who rode in last year's Preakness, could be found most mornings lingering near the horse.
Exercise rider James "Bo-Bo" Brigman, who galloped Done Talking this week and said the colt felt steady and strong, is also Russell's valet. He came to Maryland via Franklin Smith. Growing up in South Carolina, Brigman's school bus would pass Franklin's farm. He showed up at age 13 or 14, asking for a job and eventually worked his way up to galloping horses.
"It is like a big team effort," Russell said. "Everyone is connected."
No one is at the end of Hamilton Smith's prodding more than Brigman, a tall, slim black man who dotes on Done Talking despite the horse's insistence on trying to bite him.
"With Hammy, he just doesn't want to be messed with in the morning," Brigman said. "He wakes up, and he knows what his horses need, and he will not rest or be OK until that's done. After, you can ask him anything and he's wise and kind."
On the Friday before the Derby, Smith was more ornery than usual. He arrived at the track only to find that the training period had been cut short and would end at 8. Most of his family — his son, Jason, stayed behind to run the barn at Laurel — was driving to town, and he hadn't had a free minute to visit the frontside at Churchill, let alone so much as watch a race.
But he can't get his mind off of his business. Such is the lot of a man hoping to understand a horse. He can coax in the best way he knows how. He can never know if it was the best way possible.
"I try to be with them the whole time," Smith said, "from the first minutes to the gallop out to when they get washed. I just need to be there. Sometimes you notice something different – it might be little – but you try to take care of it."
His hope for this horse is palpable. There's a feeling that he's underrated; his one poor showing, at the Grade II Gotham at Aqueduct, came after he had missed a month of training because of a case of colitis that nearly killed him.
If Done Talking has any chance, it will be because the sprinters in the field stretch the race and force the talented horses stalking the lead group to exert too much energy. That would give Done Talking a chance to close, as he did in winning the Illinois Derby.
After that race — Done Talking had needed a first-place finish to earn enough graded stakes earnings to get in the Kentucky Derby — Smith came charging out of his box and uncharacteristically smothered the owners with hugs. He knew then he had a chance.Mine That Birdwon the Kentucky Derby as a 50-1 choice, and he did it by coming from the back on a wet track (there's rain in the forecast for Saturday.)
Russell, upon arriving at Churchill Downs, went to the museum and watched a replay of that race and saw some similarities. Like the jockey who rode Mine That Bird, Calvin Borel, he is Louisiana-born (though raised mostly in England).
"The boy," Smith said of his jockey, "he can do it. He's got it. He's good enough."
The horse racing world at large now knows that Smith is, too.
"I'd watch all these big races, see those horses, see them run," Brigman said, "and I just always knew that Hammy could do better. We just needed the horse. We needed the horse, and there he is. There he is. Finally."