He prowls the racetrack grounds a familiar mystery. Shadowy in sunlight. Distantly cordial. Gruffly agreeable.
So you ask the Laurel Park horsemen who’ve known Hammy Smith longest, some 40 years or more, to explain the storied, skilled enigma there in Barn 22.
“We’re good friends,” says trainer Damon Dilodovico, who works next door in Barn 25, “but we don’t talk.”
“He softened up over the years,” trainer Donald Barr surmises from Barn 10. “And still, if you got two words out of him, it was like a minor miracle.”
Horse owner Deborah Greene, who shares racing and breeding stock with Hammy, recounts a rickety ride toward welcome partnership: “When I first met him – I hate to say this – I thought he was grumpy.
Even when you coax from him a spoken thought, trainer Ferris Allen says out of Barn 21, words leave mumbled. “I talk to Hammy Smith virtually every day,” Allen offers. “And most days I have no idea what he’s sayin’. ”
Cautions issued, you find Hamilton Smith in the Laurel Park clubhouse one Satuday, broach the prospect of an interview. He sits a worthy subject: Racetrack fixture more than half a century, hands-on trainer of reigning Maryland-bred 3-year-old filly champion Luna Belle, 2012 Illinois Derby-G3 hero Done Taling and two graded stakes-winning females, purveyor of million-dollar purse earnings 26 years running, one-time South Carolina farmhand whose eight Jim McKay Maryland Million winners mark him high on the horse-traing leaderboard and reveal his snug embrace of Maryland’s farms and stallions.
Hammy shows no reaction to the interview query. His 28 horses only walk on Mondays, he says without commitment, but the coming Monday morning he goes to get his glasses fixed. His lack of alternative effects a pause.
How about the following Monday? he’s asked. Nine a.m.?His expression tells nothing. “OK,” he says eventually.
A conversational tractor-pull expected, you tap others for anecdotes, scour archives, thumb through forgotten newspaper clips in the Laurel Park press box – any tools that might help chisel a stony figure.
You track him, meantime, find other incongruities afoot. In blue jeans, golf shirt, ballcap and sneakers, he moves about a younger man, more spring than shuffle. At 78, he masks even his age without trying.
The morning in play finds Mr. Smith in his office chair, facing the door, reading a condition book. On a desk to his right, a butterscotch barn cat with chocolate swirls slumbers on a closed laptop, unmoved by a stranger’s strokes.
“Our friend have a name?”
“What’s his story?”
“Showed up maybe four years ago. Been here since.”
Funny thing about the cabbage palmetto, South Carolina’s rugged state tree: It flowers eventually in midsummer. Over two midsummer sessions and nearly three hours in his backstretch office at Laurel Park, Hammy Smith reveals conversational blossoms, plums even, about the rotten task of picking cotton, his unplanned alliance with horses and brother Franklin (Goree to many), his tricky way of helping Hall of Fame trainer Max Hirsch fall hunted doves, his Vietnam War service that plopped him near the Soviet frontier, his professional start on the frontside of New England racetracks and eventual marriage to then-apprentice jock JoAnn “Jody” Baker, his 2,100-plus racetrack winners, his whipsaw run and unfolding drama with sales-bound diva Luna Belle, his horse-breeding philosophy so governed by the Maryland Million
Crusty? How’s this: On his reason for dodging retirement, for willingly finding his stride at 3 a.m., pre-alarm, most mornings, Hammy says, “I don’t know what the hell I’d do.” Fish or golf some, maybe. Then, “I’m not a beach guy. I don’t look too good in a Speedo, anyway.”
Reluctant? Many years back, one of Hammy’s brothers gave Woody Stephens a Beagle. Short of barn help one morning, Woody cajoled the dog to clench an end of rope and become . . . a hotwalker. Says Hammy, “You shoulda seen some o’ the things that went on in those days.”
Taciturn? Hammy’s Southern-spiced references to Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Greene – Deborah’s late father, Fred – bespeak a certain deference accorded elders. “It was taught to us when we were kids,” he says. “Be respectful. You don’t call elderly people by their first names. When there are ladies in the room, no cursin’ around them. You don’t see that anymore, either. Hell, the ladies cuss worse than we do.”
Did his colleagues misrepresent Hammy’s isms? Not exactly. The open-throttle oratory has its misfires: Certain soliloquies require several tape-recorded replays to discern indistinct speech, and Hammy offsets full disclosures with guarded diffidence. When Suffolk Downs forbade married couples to work the track, Hammy, in the racing office, and his race-riding wife somehow finessed a divorce, although they celebrated a 50-year anniversary in 2023. “Let’s just say we got the necessary paperwork,” Hammy says, for a sly fox shows no feathered whiskers.
Or this: Years ago, a hand-painted ornament appeared on his office door, a brown crustacean with googly eyes gripping a shingle that read THE CRAB IS IN. Here again, Hammy turns vague at whoever made or bought or hung it, who thought it apt, and how, exactly, it disappeared.
“I just assumed his wife had posted it,” Deborah Greene says.
Hammy wouldn’t have met Jody or developed a fondness for horses or found the racetrack had his daddy not acceded and bought son John Edward an old cold-blooded pony to tramp Lone Star’s fields and unpaved roadways. To that point, nudging 1950, the 1,800-acre family farm grew soybeans, mostly, corn, oats, wheat and barley, cotton, watermelons, beef cattle, dairy cows, turkeys, chickens and guinea fowls – the watchdogs whose distinctive gabbles warned of predators.
A couple, the Pricketts, had a Thoroughbred farm maybe five miles off; John Edward, then a jockey-sized teen, came to gallop the new breed there, brought home the thrills and shared them with daddy. Before long, Dudley Smith Sr. added two broodmares to Lone Star’s livestock roster.
Until then, his youngest boys, Franklin and Hamilton, plugged away at farmyard chores, milking cows by hand, feeding the pigs, picking cotton. “My dad made us work,” Hammy says, the cotton-picking wage set at two cents a pound. He thinks he once bagged 175 pounds (worth $3.50) in a day; two women his dad employed, operating with assembly-line efficiency, would bag 300.
At 10, long before he found a saddle, Hammy tilled and harrowed fields by tractor. From the five-acre watermelon patch, he and Frank (born Franklin Gregory, hence Goree) would set up a stand out front and sell hefty wedges to passing fisherman bound for Lake Marion or Lake Moultrie in Santee.
Where farm chores grew tiresome, horses enlivened. Goree and Hammy tended the two broodmares, later their foals, with illuminating pep. “I fell in love with the little babies,” Hammy says. Certain days he’d lie a spell in the paddock, a curiosity one young filly growingly accepted. Before long he’d get on her bareback and roam the field.
The order of Smiths proved fateful. First came Dudley Jr. – Dee – then two sisters, John Edward, another sister, a 10-year gap to Franklin, 18 months more to Hammy. Of the break in production, Hammy says, “I don’t know what daddy was doin’.”
John Edward jockeyed in Canada and New England, went off to the Air Force, returned too big to ride. So he got a trainer’s license and headed north once more, exciting new needs back home.
The Smiths cut a three-furlong track into a Lone Star pasture useful, not ideal, for Goree and Hammy to break the young, uncultivated Thoroughbreds bound for John Edward’s New England barn. No helmets. No safety vests. No soft landings. When the time came, Hammy and Goree would van the horses north and spend a little time in their brother’s stable.
South Carolina then a winter destination for northern horsemen and their stock, Woody Stephens and Max Hirsch would stable at the state fairgrounds in Columbia.
As year-end farm chores lessened, teenage Hammy would make the hour’s drive there to watch the masters’ morning work. Observation brought discovery: Both trainers would work a set of 2-year-olds and leave the riders to walk them.
Another bygone serving: “One day, Mr. Hirsch worked four or five 2-year-olds, and evidently he wasn’t satisfied with the way they worked,” Hammy says. “So he walked the horses and cooled ’em out, and then made the boys get back on ’em and go work ’em again.”
Late in 1962, the year Stephens trained Never Bend to a 2-year-old championship, he and Hirsch accepted an invitation to hunt doves on the Smith farm. Dudley Smith Sr. would leave his hogs to root through a cornfield, stripping silks and gnawing cobs, which invited doves to grab the discards.
Sixteen years earlier, Hirsch had pulled off the improbable, getting the half-lame Assault to win the Triple Crown. At Lone Star Farm into his 80s, Hirsch tracked airborne doves through fuzzy vision and took aim at another longshot.
Hammy, a crack shot then as a high school senior, set up behind the group, awaited Hirsch’s volley and fired straightaway. As a dove fell, Hammy sprang: “You got him, Mr. Hirsch!”
High-flying birds aside, Hirsch maintained an eye for horses; he and Stephens liked to survey the Smith Thoroughbreds. Goree and Hammy had seen the herd one day lolling in the mud, balked at their appearance. “We didn’t want ’em thinkin’, ‘These boys in the country’ . . .” Hammy says. “We gotta clean ’em up.” Hirsch let out a laugh. “No, that’s good for ’em.”
Hammy closes. “They were well known, those guys, and down to earth. There was nothin’ fancy about ’em at all. I liked to hear what the hell they were doin’ to get a horse to the races.”
By word and by deed, Hammy remembered the Hall of Fame methods through a year at University of South Carolina and 1964 Air Force induction into the Vietnam War. Training in San Antonio, then up to Wichita Falls, just shy of Oklahoma, Hammy honed a specialization in . . . communications. He landed at a transmission hub in Orlando, Fla., spent a few years there before the Navy took it over as a training ground for Seals.
“My commanding officer told us most of us would go to Vietnam,” Hammy says, “and the smart thing to do would be to volunteer, and you may get an assignment to one of the bigger cities like Saigon and so forth.” He pursued posts in Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, and ended up in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaskan Peninsula, near the Soviet Union’s southeast border. “About as ass-backwards as you could get.”
The Cold War afoot, military strategy adapted. Hammy and his outfit gauged and recorded how close Soviet fighters would get to U.S. air space before Air Force jets interceded.
Four years in the military, Hammy rejoined civilian life in 1968 and started tracking the movements of domestic racehorses. At Suffolk Downs in East Boston, Mass., he served as assistant horse identifier, entry clerk, patrol judge. He met a Rhode Island girl, Jody, married her for good (despite paperwork to the contrary), eventually became assistant racing secretary at Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H., and, in 1972, horse identifier at newly opened Penn National.
Goree, meantime, helped John Edward manage his modest stable. When the burdens of raising a family and regularly pulling a house trailer between Carolina and New England proved wearisome, John Edward decided not to travel north with his horses. With that, Goree took over the stable.
At meet’s end, Goree and Hammy would ship the half-dozen head to South Carolina. Along the way, they’d stop in Maryland, stable and race for six weeks, then finish the journey. A restful winter back home proved a mirage with more yearlings to break. Many more yearlings. As word traveled of the Smith brothers’ horse-teaching know-how, the need for added stable space intensified. Goree rented a barn at the nearby Elloree Training Center, then bought and expanded the place. He thus ceded public-training duties to Hammy.
The taste of Maryland sated Ham Smith. With Bowie Race Course operating in winter, and year-round racing in play, he opened shop there in 1977. Three years later, John’s Roll got a ride to the Timonium Futurity and returned Hammy’s first stakes winner.
At Bowie, Hammy shared a stable with Steward Mitchell, the affably quirky trainer who would feed doughnuts, bananas, crumb cakes, oranges – oranges! – to popular late-running claimer Doctor Ichabod (Sawbones—Whooping Crane, by Duck Dance). On walks about the shedrow, The Doctor would pronounce himself treat-ready by poking open Mitchell’s office door and holding a plaintive pose. With uncommon diet came sustenance: The Doctor made 115 starts for homebuilding owner Fred Greene Jr., won 22, and drew hearty cheers in his advertised racing finale, a weekday claimer at Laurel Park. Greene and wife Odessa drove from Florida just for the occasion.
“My wife and I are crazy about him,” Fred said at the time. “We decided that if we didn’t drive up and watch this race, we would always regret it.”
The Greenes reveled in Doctor Ichabod’s sound, seventh-place exit.
Mitchell trained many others for Greene, graded-stakes winner Bea Quality among them. The owner would find his way to the barn most mornings, and Hammy knew him enough for a perfunctory hello. OK, sometimes a nod.
After Bowie ceased racing in 1985, operating only as a boarding-and-training center, the Maryland Jockey Club built a covered bridge above Race Track Road that linked stable area to track.
Greene owned a flighty filly that wouldn’t cross and therefore couldn’t train. At Mitchell’s hint, Greene sent the filly to Hammy, who’d left Bowie for the Laurel Park backstretch. A partnership was born.
Hundreds of miles apart, Hammy and Goree also grew together. Goree added broodmares and stallions to the Elloree rolls, sent resultant homebreds to his brother to race or sell privately to other clients. The South Carolina connection further strengthened when O.H. Wienges Jr., owner of 2,500-acre Singleton Plantation not far from Lone Star, started sending racing stock to Hammy.
Othneil Henry Wienges Jr. had served 10 years in the South Carolina House of Representatives and chaired the University of South Carolina’s board of trustees; in 1989, he further diversified by acquiring a stud prospect. Kokand had had modest racing success, winning three of nine starts for Woody Stephens, but Wienges fancied more his pedigree: Prodigious sire Mr. Prospector had led North American studs in 1987 and ’88; Kokand’s dam, the Nijinsky II mare Waving, had won two stakes and $174,681 in a 7-for-13 career.
It didn’t take long. Two Kokand foals of 1993, Big Rut and Double Stake, entered Hammy’s barn as 2-year-olds, bringing South Carolina-breds and trainer fresh esteem. Big Rut, a gelding out of the Gun Bow mare Miss Baltimore, proved flashy and durable: He won five stakes his 3-year-old season, got claimed away for $50,000, raced to age 10 and made $570,488. Double Stake, a female from the Double Hitch mare Double Theory, took three stakes at 3 and another at 4 in a $343,480 career.
As Kokand thrived in a new endeavor, so did James “Bobo” Brigmon. Brigmon’s school bus passing Elloree Training Center one June morning, horses galloping about the track, he and a teenage pal agreed to seek summer employment there. Geographically, Elloree was a place next door; functionally, a world away. No one in Brigmon’s immediate family had experience with horses.
Goree put him to work filling water buckets and feed tubs, removing trash, raking the shedrow, cleaning stalls, walking horses back from a paddock. Eventually Brigmon started galloping them, doing legwork, whatever the boss needed. Talent evident, Goree recommended him to Hammy.
“When I first came up, I didn’t bother him much,” Brigmon says of Hammy. “I was kinda timid from him ’cause of the way he walked around. I’m like, ‘Man, he’s not like Mr. Goree.’ Mr. Goree, he’ll talk with you, joke with you, he’ll tell you stories. Hammy’ll tell you a story every blue moon.”
Different and alike. “Listenin’ to him and Mr. Goree, you’re gonna hear the same things from both of ’em,” Brigmon says. “They’re old-school. They know everything about the horses from head to toe. When they teach you, you’re gonna know.”
By the time Brigmon found Hammy’s stable, 2000, so had Fred Greene Jr.’s runners following Steward Mitchell’s death the previous year. Greene owned some horses in partnership with daughter Deborah, Maryland Million winner Debbie Sue (Citidancer—Privateers Bay, by Allen’s Prospect) among them. All those glowing things her dad had said of Hammy, Deborah wondered – is this the same guy?
Fred’s eyesight failing, Deborah often drove him to Hammy’s barn. “I could go out there five times in a row, and the man never spoke to me,” she says. “It wasn’t rudeness . . . he was just so engaged in everything else, and focused. And I kept quiet too ’cause Dad didn’t like me asking questions a lot.”
Then, at Laurel Park, an epiphany. Outside the paddock, Deborah spotted a young girl, 8 maybe, with a grim expression and decided plea. “Where is granddaddy?” Hammy Smith emerged animated, declaring, “He’s right here!”
“His arms went out, and he picked her up, and he’s grinnin’ from ear to ear,” Deborah says. “That little girl just melted in his arms, and he carried her through. And I realized, he is just a softie. He’s an old softie.”
Coming years brought Hammy more reasons to smile. The bay mare Humoristic had a laugher in the 2005 Violet Stakes-G3 on Meadowlands turf at 28-1; two years later, a narrow score at 14-1. Grade 3 winner Blind Date took the 2010 Maryland Million Distaff Handicap for legendary adman Bill Backer, who’d penned the 1970s jingle I’d like to buy the world a Coke and other evergreens. Skeedattle Associates homebred Done Talking rallied to wrest the Illinois Derby at 12-1 months after colic nearly claimed him. The rise-and-surprise gave Done Talking (Broken Vow—Dixie Talking, by Dixieland Band) a berth in the Kentucky Derby.
Hammy’s first and only Kentucky Derby visit proved inhospitable. Churchill Downs reserved no nearby hotel rooms for the stable principals, he says, exiling them 25 miles out of town. Done Talking too found himself inconvenienced by all the crowd noise before the race and body-slamming during it. He finished 14th under Sheldon Russell.
The following spring, veterinarian Michael Harrison sent Hammy a 2-year-old homebred by Great Notion out of the Haymaker mare Mark Me Special. “One of my favorite horses,” Hammy says of Talk Show Man. “Very well-liked by the people in the barn. Easy to work with. Smart.”
Rewarding too. Talk Show Man used his beguiling, come-from-behind style to snatch the Maryland Million Turf at 4 and again at 8, earning $456,556 in a 40-race career.
Fred Greene’s passive interests as a horse breeder waning into his mid-80s, he thought to give away stakes-placed mare Heavenly Moon, newly retired, before daughter Deborah urged against it. Reassessment brought an offer: He’d give Hammy a 50-percent interest and title as managing partner to oversee Heavenly Moon and any other broodmares.
Hammy accepted. Regarding breeding matchups or auction prospects, he targeted the offspring of state stallions that would qualify for the Maryland Million.
“I really enjoy that day,” Hammy says. “It’s a good event – very good for Maryland racing, Maryland breeders and everything else. Bein’ a farm boy, I’m all for the farms.”
In 2018, Hammy sent Heavenly Moon to Northview Stallion Station in Chesapeake City for a date with Great Notion. The resultant bay filly, Luna Belle, arrived at Barn 22 with two distinct wisps on her muzzle, like someone had gotten careless with a white marker. One other peculiarity: “Clean the stall in the morning, put some fresh straw in, she’ll lie down,” Hammy says. “And she’ll stay there till race time. After the race, she’ll come back, stand there for a little while, nibble on the hay, then all of a sudden she’ll lie down again. She loves the rest.”
Luna Belle was a yearling in January 2020 when Sweet Home Dixie fled five other females and delivered Hammy’s 2,000th victory. As scripts go, it seemed transcendent: Goree bred and owned the mare, the product of an Elloree stallion – Illinois Derby winner Done Talking.
Luna Belle kept the pages turning. In five Laurel Park starts over five straight months, she won the Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship, the Xtra Heat Stakes, the Wide Country, Beyond the Wire, Weber City Miss. The last came in April 2022, a month before the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes-G2, a chance to test her mettle against 3-year-olds of national distinction.
On paper, the timing seemed ideal. But the paper had abundant ink: Since her racing debut in July 2021, she’d had 11 starts in 11 months.
“I wasn’t gonna run her ’cause she’d been running straight so long to the Black-Eyed Susan,” Hammy says. “Hadn’t had a break at all. But she kept winnin’, and it looked like it wasn’t takin’ anything out of her. And she had quite a following at the time . . . so I said, ‘Heck, let’s take a shot.’ ”
Deborah Greene was more succinct. “How could you not give her that opportunity?”
A slow start and wide trip doomed her in the Black-Eyed Susan. At 7-1, she finished 11th of 13 and later was diagnosed with bone bruises. A vet advised three months off. Hammy turned her out for four months, brought her back, galloped her into shape, breezed her twice before she developed a check ligament injury deep in the flexor tendon behind the cannon bone.
As Luna Belle rediscovered farm life, voters declared her champion Maryland-bred 3-year-old filly of 2022: Five starts, four victories, $255,000 in purses.
“I never imagined having a horse like Luna Belle. Can’t imagine havin’ another one,” Deborah says. “So much can go wrong in horse racing. And obviously there’s nothing like it when it goes right.”
As Hammy prepared to bring her back, horses started getting hurt mornings and afternoons across the Laurel dirt, a perilous problem that rose and ebbed for months. Hammy says he’d lost three horses to the track and couldn’t risk harming Luna Belle. Deborah’s agreement bred a creative solution: This past spring, they sent her to Chesapeake City to be covered by Engage, Northview Stallion Station’s second-year stud.
She didn’t catch, Hammy says, “which may work in our favor.”
Spurred by vocal horsemen, Laurel Park ownership brought back track superintendent John Passero, who identified and remedied racing-surface defects. The racetrack made safe, Luna Belle not in foal and moving soundly, the door to a racing comeback opened anew.
She rejoined Hammy’s stable and started galloping toward a possible Maryland Million berth in early June, exercise rider Bobo Brigmon offering this assessment: “She’s doing awesome. She’s handlin’ everything good. She’s a cool horse, you know? She’ll pull on ya a little bit.”
Luna Belle tends to go out in predawn quiet, the Laurel racetrack lightly traveled. By August, as she’d started breezing half-miles, Brigmon recognized her urge to surge. “When she sees another horse out there,” he says, “she gets racy.”
Says Hammy: “She’s the type of filly, she gets fit pretty quick.”
Says Deborah: “I look forward to seeing what she can do. But she’ll never disappoint me.”
Luna Belle’s revival brought horse-training neighbor Ferris Allen no surprise given her trainer’s acumen. “When you look at Hammy,” he says, “there’s no more straightforward, hard-trying, diligent guy ever in the business.”
September calling, Hammy hadn’t settled on a comeback race to set up a possible Million bid. Although Luna Belle skipped through dirt in all six victories – Hammy replayed two potent stretch runs on his cellphone – the trainer didn’t rule out a possible grass race. Yes, Luna Belle started her career with two winless turf starts, but her dam, Heavenly Moon, relished it.
Racing plans aside, Luna Belle has a date scheduled in Kentucky. In light of the times, Hammy and Deborah agreed to book her in the Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale, a racehorse or broodmare option for any potential buyer. In his 46 years training, Hammy says, she’s the first horse he’s catalogued.
Deborah says Hammy’s matchmaking prowess shows through Moon Virginia (by Jump Start) and The Poser (Bandbox), stakes-placed runners that together eclipsed $650,000 in purses. But, as a retired accountant, she deems time and expense mighty obstacles.
“I’m not ready for more horses yet,” she says. “I’ve got my limit just about now.”
Her holdings, with Hammy, include Luna Belle’s full-brother and full-sister, Run Bucky Run, a 3-year-old gelding whose tendon problems brought him farm time this summer, and a weanling filly; plus Jack o’ Bite, a yearling Golden Lad colt Deborah called “one big, gorgeous-lookin’ horse,” and Little Engine, a 2-year-old Bourbon Courage half-sister who endured a complicated birth that marks her racing future uncertain.
But one thing Deborah says she knows: “None of this would have been possible without Ham Smith.”
How times and impressions change. “I find him very easy to talk to now,” she says. “When things go a certain way with work and stuff, you know not to bother him. But he’s funny. I love to hear his stories, and his stories about the old racing, and his time at the farm. And so my perception of him’s totally changed.
“I think, with Ham, he can be the crab. But I approach it with a sense of humor, and I usually end up making him laugh . . . It took me a while to discover it. Years, actually. He’s a good friend. He was a great friend to my dad.”
“Smart man,” Hammy says of Fred. “Hell of a guy. You won’t find a better person than that guy.”
During 2020, his final months with Alzheimer’s Disease, Fred had trouble grasping why he couldn’t properly receive a guest to his Annapolis condo. “Covid-19,” Deborah told him. “It isn’t safe.”
More than once, the visitor arrived on time in blue jeans, plaid shirt, ballcap and sneakers. Farm life and horses, Hammy says, teach you to grow and reap in imperfect conditions. He set up a folding chair on the condo patio and, through a screen door, talked to Fred a good long time.