Hamilton Smith

Hamilton Smith is ready for his shot at a Triple Crown race with Done Talking. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / April 28, 2012)

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."