A weathered sign hangs from twisted wire on the green-painted office door of trainer Hamilton Smith's barn at Laurel Park, aged by years of hot sun and harsh winters. Greeting visitors is the unblinking stare of a faded crustacean, holding a message in its claws.
“The Crab Is In.”
Don't be fooled by the message, a testament to the respect and admiration his workers have for the 74-year-old Smith's no-nonsense approach to training since he first hung his shingle more four decades ago.
Well-known for his work with turf horses and fillies, Smith is also highly regarded for his horsemanship and patience, particularly with young horses, and a work ethic cultivated by picking cotton and other crops as a young boy on his family's South Carolina farm.
“Old school, solid, honest person. Excellent horseman,” owner and breeder Dr. Michael J. Harrison said of Smith. “Always thinking of putting the horse first. I give him a lot of credit for that. He's been great with young, starting-out horses.
“They have that sign on his door [but] once you get to know him, he's a hell of a nice guy, and a great person,” he added. “I've had some very good luck with him.”
Never one to promote himself, Smith is on the precipice of a major personal milestone – 2,000 career wins. According to Equibase statistics, he stood at 1,986 wins through Oct. 14, a number that humbles even the ever-humble man most commonly called 'Ham' or 'Hammy.'
Eight of those wins have come in the Jim McKay Maryland Million, tied for third-most among trainers in the event, which celebrates its 34th year Saturday, Oct. 19 at Laurel.
“I never thought I would last this long, to tell you the truth,” Smith said. “We started out with homebreds for probably the first 15 or 20 years I trained almost. It took me long enough to get close, I can tell you that.
“It's a big number. I'm proud of it,” he added. “It would be a nice accomplishment, of course. Anybody who says it's not, they'd be lying. It's been a lot of fun.”
It has also taken its share of hard work, something Smith learned as one of seven siblings growing up in Long Star, S.C., helping tend to the nearly 1,800 acres of soybeans, corn and livestock that comprised his father Dudley's farm.
“My daddy had me driving a tractor when I was 9,” Smith said. “He was a farmer; he didn't have anything to do with racehorses. But he acquired a couple old mares, so our neighbors bred them and raced them. We kept the babies and my brother Frank and I took care of the horses. My dad stayed in it just for our sake, I think. Dad never went to the races.”
One of Smith's older brothers, John Henry, was less inclined to farm life and more prone to ride a pony their father bought, often to a neighbor's farm where they had Thoroughbreds. John Henry would eventually quit school and begin working for the neighbors, learning how to gallop and breeze horses and later become a professional jockey, riding in the 1940s and 1950s at smaller tracks like West Virginia's Wheeling Downs and Scarborough Downs in Maine.
“He went into the service and spent four years in the Air Force, and when he get out he was too big and couldn't reduce to ride again. He took up training and he trained a couple horses that my dad had,” Smith said. “That's about the only person he trained for. He had a family and decided he wanted to stay in South Carolina instead of going back and forth to New England. Then my brother Frank took over the training part of it and he and I got involved in the breaking of yearlings.”
Frank Smith, nicknamed 'Goree' by his father as a short form of Franklin Gregory, became so adept at breaking young horses that in 1973 he purchased the Elloree Training Center in Elloree, S.C. to replace the small, three-eighths mile track where he and his kid brother had been working.
After a few years of balancing both jobs, Goree Smith became in such demand that he turned his focus to strictly breaking horses, leaving the training side to Hamilton, 18 years his junior. Ham Smith followed older brother John's lead and began in New England, starting his first horse April 14, 1977 and earning his first winner eight days later, both at Suffolk Downs.
In those days, Maryland was a stop on the way back to South Carolina for the winter. Until it wasn't.
“The racing in New England wasn't year-round, and we would stop off at Laurel on the way home to South Carolina in the fall. We'd stay around a month or so and then head on home. We had several nice fillies and stuff and nowhere to run up there, and one thing led to another.
“I went into the service myself, the Air Force, and when I got out I worked in the racing office. When Penn National opened I was the horse identifier there and my brother Lou would stop down to Bowie. I quit the racing department. I just didn't like being inside all the time, being a country boy and all. I decided I would go on to training horses. Once I got to Laurel, I've been here ever since.”
Initially landing at the old Bowie Race Track before relocating to Laurel, Smith won his first career stakes with John's Roll in the 1980 Timonium Futurity. Starting in 1999, when he set career highs with 101 wins and $2.07 million in purse earnings, Smith has gone to win or share five Laurel meet training titles, the most recent coming at the 2016 summer stand.
Smith has reached $1 million in seasonal earnings for 22 consecutive years, starting in 1998. He credits much of his success to his brother, Goree, whose skill at developing horses has sent many of his pupils to some of the sport's biggest races.
“Just about all the horses I've got, I got through him one way or another. He's been a great help to my career,” Smith said. “If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have made it this far.”
Thinking back on his best horses, Smith recalls 2005 and 2007 Violet (G3) winner Humoristic; 2009 Virginia Oaks (G3) winner Blind Date; Harrison's 2014 and 2018 Maryland Million Turf winner Talk Show Man; 2000 Maryland-bred Horse of the Year Gin Talking, a three-time stakes winner for Smith as a 2-year-old; and Big Rut, who won seven stakes for Smith between 1996 and 1998.
“Blind Date was a pretty nice mare I had. Humoristic, she did real good once I put her on the turf,” Smith said. “Big Rut, he started me off with the handicaps and stuff around here. Omar Klinger rode him and he won a handicap or two with him, he works here in the jocks room now.
“He was one of my favorites because he was just a horse, so to speak, who did more than people thought he could. We had him for sale and had several people look at him but nobody wanted him, so we ran him and he did pretty dang good,” he added. “I never had the real big horse, so to speak, but we've won a lot of stakes around here. We've done pretty good.”
The best may have been 2012 Illinois Derby (G3) winner Done Talking, a horse raised by his brother that provided Smith with his lone trip to a Triple Crown race. After surviving a serious bout with colic that nearly cost him his life the winter before his 3-year-old year, Done Talking finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby (G1) behind I'll Have Another.
“We bought him out of the sale. As a 2-year-old he ran good and we had him up there in the stake in New York in the fall, the Remsen, and he ran a big race. He came close to winning it,” Smith said. “After that race we started pointing toward the Derby if we could get there, but we didn't have any [earnings] leading up to it and the last place we had to get points was the Illinois Derby. So, we took him out there and won it, and that made him eligible.
“We ran him back in two weeks to run in the Derby, and that kind of burned him out,” he added. “He was one of the best horses I had. If he hadn't gotten sick and everything, I think he was cut out to be a pretty nice colt.”
Smith has topped $40.5 million in career purse earnings from more than 13,000 starters, all without an assistant though his son, Jason, has essentially been filling that role in recent years.
“Jason has kind of taken over the feeding program and making sure things get done during the races and all that. He's the closest to an assistant I've ever had,” Smith said. “I've always done everything myself. I just feel like you can do better with them all in one spot. I was never ambitious enough to grow too big like some of the younger boys did. I like to keep them all together, if possible, and see them every day. I think you can see more and get better results that way.”
Smith pre-entered seven horses to six races in this year's Maryland Million including Hanalei's Houdini in both the $150,000 Classic and $125,000 Turf, and Ghoul's Night Out in the $125,000 Ladies and $100,000 Distaff. Also among Smith's Maryland Million wins are the 1997 Nursery with Carnivorous Habit, 1999 Lassie with Gin Talking, 2006 Ladies with Debbie Sue, 2010 Distaff with Blind Date, 2015 Distaff with Lionhearted Lady and 2016 Nursery with Greatbullsoffire.
“The Maryland Million is the second-biggest day we have here in Maryland during the year and we all look forward to it. I try to run something every year. I have a few pointing for it this year and hopefully we'll have some luck,” Smith said. “Winning a Maryland Million race is a big deal, I think. It makes you feel good and you hope to be able to come up with something because we point for it for such a long period of time. To get there and be able to win is a pretty big deal.”
Though Talk Show Man was recently retired with a tendon injury, Smith currently has his 2-year-old half-brother Wlcometothpartycal in training. Also a half to multiple stakes winner Just Jack and six-figure earner Slick William, Wlcometothpartycal is a chestnut son of Cowboy Cal out of the Haymaker mare Mark Me Special.
“He's kind of an interesting horse. As a baby he had an infected shoulder joint that required a portion of his shoulder joint on the scapula side to be removed. That was done up at New Bolton by Dean Richardson and so far, so good. Everything has been fine,” Harrison said.
“The point is, that's the kind of horse that needs somebody experienced, smart, and sensitive to what's going on,” he added. “And I wouldn't have him with anybody else but Hamilton for that.”
Smith is thankful for the support he continues to receive through the years, with no plans to retire or do anything else.
“I'd go crazy if all I had to do was sit around the house. I've been an outside person since I was knee-high to a duck,” he said. “When I'm not able to do it anymore, I guess I'll quit, but I still love doing it.”
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