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Achievements with legendary Jay Trump just a part of legacy left by Tommy Smith
Tommy Smith went to Charles Town racetrack in 1960, lived in a motel for six weeks, studied hundreds of horses and bought two. One, a plain, brown, nothing-special horse, changed lives. Smith turned that horse, a Maryland-bred, Pennsylvania-raised Thoroughbred named Jay Trump, into arguably the greatest American steeplechaser of all time.
Smith and Jay Trump won the Maryland Hunt Cup three times, beating a fellow triple winner Mountain Dew each time. In 1965, Jay Trump went to England and won the Grand National, the world’s steeplechase, in an endeavor managed to the finest detail by Smith. The Virginian turned Marylander was born to be a horseman, the grandson of legendary sportsman Harry Worcester Smith, but outran expectations–on the race course and off–in a life that ended March 5 at his home in Upperco, Md. He was 74.
With horses, Smith won the storied Hunt Cup five times, second only to Mikey Smithwick’s six, added the fabled Grand National at Aintree (an American amateur riding against the best from England and Ireland).
Away from horses, Smith battled alcoholism into submission, headed a biomedical research company in Minnesota, ran another successful medical database firm in Massachusetts, designed barns, built and sailed a 68-foot aluminum schooner, lived in Maine and the Virgin Islands.
He was a fisherman, a sailor, a hockey coach, a husband, a friend, a father, a grandfather, a man who could read three magazines and watch television at the same time–and hold a conversation about all four. After leaving horses and racing behind in the early 1970s, he returned in retirement from the business world to train a few timber horses back in Maryland only to be paralyzed in a fall at his farm in 2001. The riding accident was a simple one, and would have barely registered on the danger scale when compared to crossing Tufton Avenue to jump the third at Glyndon or the Melling Road to begin the second circuit at Liverpool. The injury took away Smith’s ability to walk and move much of his body, but it did nothing to his mind.
“Paddy Neilson and I would go down two or three times a year and talk to Tommy,” said Dr. John Fisher, who rode with Smith in the 1960s and was a pallbearer at the funeral. “We did it for Tommy, or thought we did. Turned out we did it for us. It was a great delight and his mind was as sharp as it was when he was 20 years old.”
With three old timber jockeys, the conversation frequently turned to horses. They talked about the Hunt Cup, which they all won. They talked about great horses, which they all rode. A favorite topic was the 1966 race, Jay Trump’s final start a year after winning at Aintree.
rogressing from the Hunt Cup to the Grand National was one thing, and fairly logical. Doing the reverse was unheard of. But Jay Trump did it, overcoming fog, mist, rain and old foe Mountain Dew on the last Saturday of April. Smith told of the raw competition along the woods over fences 16, 17 and 18. No spectators made it there that day. Through the gloaming, Smith and Mountain Dew’s jockey Janon Fisher could see the next fence, but not much more, and the only sounds they heard were the breathing of the two Thoroughbreds and the clinking of stirrups. It was a picture Smith enjoyed painting and Neilson and John Fisher enjoyed hearing.
Fisher recalled another story, part of an “Americans at Aintree” discussion at Shawan Downs in 2005. Smith and Charlie Fenwick Jr. (who won the Grand National in 1980) were there to speak about the great race. Smith, in a wheelchair, brought a speech to read but wound up simply answering questions from the moderator, English racing commentator Richard Pitman. Smith closed his eyes and started talking. The sellout crowd of 800 hung on every word.
“It was a magical moment,” said Fisher. “Every person there never forgot that. Tommy just talked. It was terrific.”
Smith was born in Virginia, where he rode ponies, foxhunted and moved to point-to-points and later sanctioned races. He rode his first race in 1956, won a hurdle race at Arlington Park in 1958. On the advice of leading steeplechase owner Theodora Randolph, he moved to Maryland to ride with the Smithwick family. Smith learned to ride, really ride, timber races there–under the eyes of Hall of Fame brothers Mikey and Paddy Smithwick.
Like all riders of racehorses, then and now, Smith found horses to ride all over Maryland steeplechase country. Bobby Fenwick provided a room in his house, horses to ride, career advice. Future Olympian and trail-blazing Hunt Cup rider Kathy Kusner was there. She knew Smith in Virginia and their paths crossed again in Maryland.
“He was my boyfriend when I was around 17 or something like that, and we stayed friends,” she said. “We had the same interest in timber races and timber horses. We were running from place to place getting connected with different horses. He was such a beautiful rider, on his own talent and ability. It wasn’t like he had extensive instructions. He sat on a horse the way he sat on a horse.”
Smith did study though, soaking up input from the Smithwick brothers, Bobby Fenwick and small-timers such as Horace Moffett, whose horse Phalene was a frequent ride for Smith and Kusner. Mikey Smithwick dubbed Smith “the Little Hotwalker” at some point and watched as his pupil roared past to win the 1959 Hunt Cup aboard Fluctuate for Bobby Fenwick. A year later, with Smith sidelined by an injury, Smithwick rode the horse to a repeat win. Smith was back in 1961, winning with Simple Samson.
And then came Jay Trump.
Smith had purchased the prospect for family friend Mary Stephenson at Charles Town in 1960 for the grand sum of $2,000 (after eight fruitless starts on the flat for owner/breeder Jay Sensenich). Gelded, freshened, taught to jump at Fenwick’s farm, Jay Trump grew into a galloping, jumping, staying star–winning four of five timber starts in 1962, setting a course record in the Maryland Hunt Cup in 1963 and sweeping My Lady’s Manor, Grand National and the Hunt Cup in 1964. Smith thought about England after that first Hunt Cup. With confidence, most likely.
“You know how people will say ‘Oh, I’ll try to do this or that’?” Kusner said. “Well, Tommy would be a little bit more bold when he made a statement like that. He was serious, confident, and would come across a little bit arrogant but that’s the way he approached things. He took things seriously.”
In the summer of 1964, Smith and his new bride Frances honeymooned in England and Ireland. By July, America’s Grand National hope was there, too–set up in the yard of then-rookie trainer Fred Winter after much consideration from Smith.
Jay Trump won his first two races that fall, finished second in a two-horse edition of the King George VI at Kempton and moved to 1965 fully eligible for the Aintree race. The Americans won a chase at Newbury for amateur riders, then finished fifth in a final tightener at Worcester 10 days before the big race.
First run in 1839, the Grand National features 30 fences spread over more than 4 miles. Fences like Becher’s Brook, The Chair, Valentine’s Brook, Canal Turn are touchpoints of jump racing–the names meaning something to anyone with a connection to the sport. Smith considered every inch beforehand, studying film with Winter, devising a strategy to stay on the course’s inside to avoid traffic and trouble. The inside, however, demanded more jumping with steeper drops at many fences. Jay Trump handled it all, carrying Smith over the monstrous fences and outrunning favorite Freddie in the stretch to complete an American steeplechase odyssey.
Smith, in the book Jay Trump, A Steeplechase Saga, by Peter Winants, explained the feeling:
“Pat McCarron was Freddie’s rider. He was waiting for me to commit myself and I was waiting for McCarron. Finally, between the third and second from home McCarron asked Freddie the big question. The Scotch horse responded by momentarily moving ahead of us. I said. ‘Jay Trump, old boy, this is it.’ I sent him along with Freddie. We jumped the second to last aside each other . . . ?We were in a life and death fight. Jay Trump was totally extended as we approached the last fence. We were driving as though there was no fence there at all. Jay Trump took a real flyer. He rose to the fence too soon and I got left a bit. We crashed through and we picked up about a three-quarter length lead . . . I sat down with what little strength I had left and handrode him. Jay Trump responded. I honestly didn’t think I’d have the strength to make it . . .”
John Fisher remembered thinking how remarkable it all was. Journalist Ray Woolfe III went to Aintree to chronicle the attempt and told Fisher all about it beforehand. Fisher was realistic and said “I’m sure you’re going to have a great time, but there’s not a chance in the world that horse is going to win that race.” To outsiders, Jay Trump was a lovely horse but offered no flash, no sizzle, no discerning brilliance that would have made anyone think such an undertaking plausible. An American horse, even a good one, tackling the best in the world on a diabolical race course? Ridden by an amateur? Preposterous.
But Smith dreamed big, saw things through, put in the work, gathered all the facts.
“Tommy was into every aspect of taking care of that horse,” Fisher said. “I was at Mikey’s when he came to work there and then I became a vet and he kept asking me for advice on what to feed the horse. I don’t think I added anything to it, but Tommy kept asking questions.”
After Aintree, Jay Trump ran twice more in Europe, placing third in the demanding Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris at Auteuil before returning to the U.S. and one final campaign–including the third Hunt Cup victory–in 1966.
Though it occurred 15 years earlier, Smith’s Grand National win played a big role in Fenwick’s victory with *Ben Nevis II. Fenwick remembers trying to tune in Jay Trump’s race on a shortwave radio that didn’t work. Two hours after the fact, he found out Jay Trump, the horse he’d seen win the Hunt Cup a year earlier, won the greatest steeplechase in the world. And Tommy Smith, the man who rode out for Fenwick’s uncle Bobby, rode him. Heady stuff for a 17-year-old wanna-be timber jockey. The next autumn, Fenwick was a freshman at Connecticut’s Trinity College and feeling homesick. He was saved by a book, The Will to Win about Jay Trump, Smith and the historic achievement.
“I was a mess, I wanted to leave, and I got that book,” Fenwick recalled. “Those first few days at school I read that book, and was absorbed by it. I was looking for something to be absorbed by and I remember for a long time I sort of had it memorized. It sunk in with me.”
Despite the audacity of it, Smith’s achievement made winning at Aintree seem possible. Fenwick knew Smith, saw him ride. Smith was good, but he wasn’t that good. More to the point, Smith was disciplined and planned it all out. Smith picked Winter, then just starting what would be a successful training career, because a bigger trainer might not have taken the expedition seriously. Smith exercised, somewhat fanatically and often on a bicycle, to get fit. Indirectly, unintentionally, Smith wound up an inspiration. With Fenwick aboard, *Ben Nevis won two Hunt Cups and then went to England to try Aintree–he fell in 1979 and repeated Jay Trump’s historic score the following year.
“If he hadn’t done what he did I’m not sure I would have dreamed of going over there,” said Fenwick. “I never stopped dreaming about it after he did it. All those years later, the chance came along and I was more prepared. If I had been a year or two older or younger, it wouldn’t have had the same imprint.”
More acquaintances than friends, Smith and Fenwick shared an achievement, though Fenwick placed Jay Trump’s win on the higher rung.
“My win, all I had to do was survive, I won by 20 lengths with only three other finishers, and I am sure we benefited from running the year before; the learning curve was different,” he said. “Smith beat a good horse, a good rider. It was a more competitive race. Then he ran in France and came back to win the Hunt Cup again–it’s amazing, just absolutely amazing.”
And Smith was just getting started.
His riding career over, he set up a training operation in a barn he designed and built on the Cochran property in Butler, Md. Typically, Smith thought of everything–airflow, light, the details–and filled the barn with horses. But, as Fisher put it, maybe his friend wasn’t set up to be a trainer. He thought too much, fretted the details, always wondered why. In May 1971, Smith ran two horses in a maiden timber race at Radnor. They both fell. He was out of training by that September, but far from a failure.
He went to the famed Hazelden addictions clinic in Minnesota, stopped drinking, stayed in that area to work in the biomedical engineering field. The company specialized in the treatment of extreme pain in the low back, pursued venture-capital opportunities in medication and electronic advancements, the early use of electronic databases and records. Smith became CEO. He moved to Massachusetts and headed up another company, DataTree, which advanced the use of electronic medical records and other database technology.
The Grand National and the Hunt Cup were moments in Smith’s past, known about but only rarely discussed. He turned to other passions, including the construction of Star Light–a sailboat he built over four years in Maine. Based on the 1927 Alden Schooner Malabar VIII, the boat was built from German plans Smith had translated to English. Smith sailed Star Light from Maine to the Virgin Islands, used her for day sailing and charter trips from Caneel Bay in St. John. Eventually donated to a non-profit, Star Light was restored and sold again. She was recently seen crossing the Sir Francis Drake Channel in the Caribbean.
At Smith’s funeral, Star Light was used as something of a metaphor–for life, for working hard, for worthwhile pursuits.
Smith the businessman and boat builder didn’t tell many Jay Trump stories, though he kept in touch with Kusner, his sister Kitty back in Maryland and others. He knew who won the Hunt Cup, knew who won the Grand National, but horses and racing were no longer things he did until he came back to Maryland and did it all over again?–?starting a small timber stable from scratch in 2001. He did it in part to give something back to Maryland timber racing, in part because he enjoyed the process. Training a horse can be something like building a boat.
“He wanted to help the Hunt Cup, wanted to help create timber horses,” said longtime friend Carol Fenwick. “It was something thing he cared about, something he wanted to do.”