In three years, Milton Smith went from van driver for wealthy harness racing sportsman Robert Key to the first black trainer to win the Hambletonian, Standardbred racing's biggest prize.
Tonight, Smith will be honored for his accomplishments at the fifth African Americans in Horse Racing dinner at Pimlico Race Course. The party and awards ceremony is the brainchild of Baltimore racing fan Inez Chappell, who started the affair to bring attention to the contributions black Americans make to the sport.
Smith, 51, joins a list of honorees from past years that includes Ernest Colvin, a longtime member and former chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission; Hazel Dukes, who headed the New York Off-Track Betting Corp.; and "Pops" Burrell, father of rap star Hammer, who raced thoroughbred filly Lite Light.
Smith said yesterday that winning the Hambletonian last summer at The Meadowlands with American Winner was "a dream come true. It's the one race that anyone in Standardbred racing wants to win. I never thought I'd get to see a live Hambletonian, and the first time I did, my horse won it."
Smith grew up in southeastern Ohio. His father and uncle were in the horse business and he gravitated to it, too. "I had my own stable, but I was just racing on the fair circuit around Ohio," he said. "I had cheap horses and was making no money."
Smith interviewed for a job with Key, probably the sport's largest owner who has approximately 240 trotters among his farm in Worthington, Pa., a training center in Aiken, S.C. and various U.S. and Canadian tracks.
"In August 1990, I asked him if he wanted a truck driver," Smith said. "His farm manager used to drive the horses around, but the operation was getting too big. The first year that we went to Aiken for the winter, there wasn't much trucking to do. So I started to help train. When the horses went north, they went in all directions and I ended up taking a string to Chicago."
Last May, Smith was in Canada when Key called him and said he was minus one employee -- head trainer Steve Bush. "Mr. Key asked me if I wanted the job and that's how it started," Smith said.
At that point American Winner had won several trotting stakes. "The pressure was on," Smith said. "But Mr. Key had faith in me." On July 10, American Winner won the Yonkers Trot, the first leg of trotting's Triple Crown, then he was victorious in the second leg, the Hambletonian, on Aug. 7. The horse was favored to sweep the Triple Crown, but finished off the board on Oct. 8 in the Kentucky Futurity.
"I don't know what happened to him, but he just wasn't himself for that race," Smith said. "Maybe it was the end of the season and he was just tired. He got beat. There are no excuses."
It was American Winner's last race. He retired with earnings of $1.3 million and now stands at stud at Hanover Shoe Farm in Hanover, Pa., about an hour north of Baltimore. He will bred to about 125 to 140 mares this year at a fee of $10,000 per mare.
Smith now oversees Key's 52-horse racing string, which is divided between Aiken, The Meadows, a harness track near Pittsburgh, and The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J.
Don't count him out of this year's Hambletonian, Smith said. "Mr. Key gears his breeding program to the big races. We have two colts, Treasure Crown and Key's Super Pro, who are unraced so far."