The Smith Brothers: Carolina Roots, Flowering in Kentucky
Hamilton Smith sat in his barn office at Laurel Park one day last week after the morning work was done and found himself complaining about new immigration laws keeping nine Mexican workers he has employed for years from getting back into the country.
“All my visas got turned down this year, so I’m not getting any of them boys back,” said Smith, who has been training race horses on his own since the 1970s. “They say we have to hire American help. I don’t know where I’m going to get it from, and no one else can get it either. People don’t want to do this kind of work once they find out what the hours are.”
The Smith brothers in the 1970s. (Photo courtesy Elloree Training Center)
Smith trailed off into comments about the nature of work ethic and the effect of government welfare and unemployment supports and realized he had begun saying more than he wanted.
Smith, 67, has been working hard, starting dark and early, nearly every morning of his life since he was a boy picking cotton and other crops and working with animals on his father’s farm in Lone Star, South Carolina.
His brother, Frank, 18 months older, is the same way. For 36 years, he has owned and operated the Elloree Training Center in Elloree, S.C., six miles from the old family farm.
Both brothers value good help but not as much as helping themselves. It is an ethic instilled in them by family and the land they grew up on, and their kind has grown scarce in modern times. Hamilton — known as Hammy — has never hired an assistant trainer. Frank — nicknamed Goree by his father, short for Franklin Gregory — practically is Elloree, for all the hands-on work he puts in there.
They are two of the finest true horsemen in the thoroughbred world, and most people don’t even know who they are.
On Saturday, the Smith brothers will be in the Churchill Downs barn of Dale Romans, sending off horses into the Kentucky Derby.
Hammy, who has raced all over the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, has never even been to Churchill Downs, let alone run a horse in the biggest race of all. His work with the 3-year-old Done Talking, a homebred owned by a couple long-time Maryland clients racing as Skeedattle Associates, has got him there.
Frank, who raised Done Talking, has long been a close associate of Romans, a leading trainer nationally, and he helped pick out and later broke his colt, Dullahan, at Elloree.
Done Talking won the Illinois Derby, and Dullahan took the Blue Grass Stakes to earn their way into the Run for the Roses. Their entry is a payoff for decades of steady commitment to a life they have loved since childhood, working with and being around horses.
Hammy and Frank are two of seven siblings born to Dudley Smith and his wife, Virgie. Frank, however, was born 10 years after the last of the first five, so when he and Hammy were coming of age, the two other boys and three girls were nearly grown.
Dudley Smith farmed nearly 1,800 acres of soybeans, corn and livestock. He had a couple hundred head of beef cattle and several hundred hogs. The family butchered its own cows, hogs and chickens so didn’t have to buy much from the grocery store.
“Hammy and I fought a lot,” Franklin said. “Back in those days, if you were 8, 10, 12 years old, you had to do things. We helped feed the hogs. My father had a lot of hogs.”
One brother, John Edward, didn’t take to the farming life. He liked horses, and in the 1940s he set down the path his younger siblings would follow.
“John Edward had a little pony he would ride around the countryside there,” Hammy said. “There weren’t any paved roads back then. He would ride that pony all day long. Some neighbors of ours, the Prickets, had thoroughbreds, and they raced primarily in New England. John Edward would slip off and start galloping horses there in the morning, skipping school, that kind of stuff.
“He finally quit school and went with them. He rode at Wheeling, West Virginia, and in Canada and New England at Scarborough Downs. He got a draft notice and went into the service, and when he came out, he got too big. He tried to reduce and go back to riding, but he couldn’t.
“My dad got a couple broodmares to satisfy him, I guess, and some mares other guys didn’t want. He raised a couple a couple babies off them, and that was when my brother Frank and I were little and we got attached to the horses.”
John Edward, who had been in the Air Force, came back home in 1954 and couldn’t make weight anymore. He got a trainer’s license and went up to New England, where he knew people from his riding days. He had three or four horses and a couple his father had bought him.
Hammy and Frank were in awe of this older brother, who went away in the summertime to race his horses.
“My gracious, he would come in on the train, coming home in the winter, and I can remember going to the train station to pick him up and it was like a hero was coming home,” Frank said. “That was the end of the world when he was leaving, going back to the races, and Hammy and I were stuck home without him.”
Finally, when the boys were maybe 13, 14, Dudley Smith would work them on the farm until mid-June and then let them go up the road to New England with John Edward. They’d stay with their older brother and learned to walk hots and groom horses, and he taught them both how to gallop.
“Hammy and I would go up a couple weeks in the summer and spend time with him in New England, at Suffolk and Narragansett,” Frank said. “It was great. When we got a couple years older, a couple other guys racing up there – Henry Carroll and Webb Carroll – they ran around the same places. So, we wound up with them a few weeks during the summer, and we had a ball. We’ve been in the horse business ever since.”
There wasn’t much sports in South Carolina back in those days but horse racing and boxing, Frank said.
On the grounds that are now Elloree was a track called Old Palmetto Race Course. In the 1940s, when the tracks up north would close for the winter, the horsemen would migrate south and lay up their horses. But it didn’t hurt to race some at these little tracks.
“They even had bookies that would come down in the wintertime with their chalk boards and make odds,” Frank said. “They would have purses like $400 or $500 for the feature race, and they’d pay off in war bonds. They’d run one weekend here and run at Charleston the next weekend and then Myrtle Beach.
“The legislators got into a fuss about it being gambling, and they got elected on the platform that if they got elected, they’d do away with it. 1947 was the last year they had legal gambling, but they’ve always had horses around here.”
Dullahan (Eclipse Sportswire)
John Edward married and began to raise a family, and when the kids started school he didn’t want to be away anymore. Frank, who had gone to college for a couple years, took over the training and began traveling himself up to New England to race at Suffolk Downs, Rockingham Park, Lincoln Downs and Narragansett.
“He’d come back in the winter, and we were breaking our own yearlings and a couple guys decided they wanted somewhere to send their babies down, and Lyn Whiting sent a couple horses down to us,” said Hammy, referring to the trainer who won the Kentucky Derby in 1992 with Lil E. Tee. “My dad built a little racetrack for us, about three-eighths of a mile around, and that’s what we trained our horses on.
“After a while, Frank started accumulating a few more yearlings each year and finally my dad had to build several more barns, and after awhile we had 20 or 30 yearlings. Frank was very good at it. We got on all the horses ourselves for the first five or six years. I was in my late teens.”
Hammy went for one year to the University of South Carolina, but the horses lured him back. He began traveling up to New England with Frank and working as an assistant horse identifier and then in the race offices, while Frank trained. Then the two brothers would return home in the winters and break yearlings.
“I got my draft notice in ’64 during the Vietnam deal,” Hammy said. “I joined the Air Force, and that’s what my brother John Edward was in, and he suggested I go in it. I volunteered for Vietnam and they sent me to Alaska. It was very picturesque, but I didn’t like it.”
While Hammy was away serving, Frank got married and kept at the yearlings while also training. When Hammy returned in 1969, he took a job as a racing official when Penn National Race Course opened in Grantville, Pa. Much of the staff, including Hammy, quit en masse during the first meet because they got tired of racing commission meddling.
Meantime, Frank’s business had gotten so big, he had to lease barns down at Elloree from the man running it at the time. Dudley Smith began dividing up his farm, which wasn’t contiguous, and giving parcels to his grown children.
Gradually, most of them sold their parts off and moved on with their lives. One of the older sisters, however, still lives in the old family home. Frank and Hammy, though, were all in with the horses.
“I was training up in the ’70s, and we did all right, and I started picking up other people’s horses,” said Frank, who trained for about 10 years. “And we’d come back in November, like in the old days when it got cold up north. Instead of going to the other tracks, we’d come home. I started handling horses for Donald Barr, Lyn Whiting, Butch Lenzini. I just started building on that and breaking yearlings in the wintertime.
“We had more than we could keep at the farm, and my dad said I needed another place. I leased Elloree for a year and turned around and bought it in 1976. It was a big deal. I didn’t have that kind of money at the time, but the breaking yearlings part had mushroomed because the commercial part of racing had really started up then.”
When Elloree was up to 250 yearlings at a time in the 1970s, Frank had to give up the training, which he still longs to do again. Hammy picked up his brother’s horses and never looked back.
After awhile, instead of returning home at the end of the New England meets, Hammy would stop off and race at Bowie Race Course in Maryland. Several years later, he quit New England for good and moved to Maryland, where he has been ever since.
“We’re almost like twins,” Hammy said, and he and Frank have remained close, mostly by phone, through the years. Hammy has had a fine, if unspectacular, career racing out of Maryland. He has developed a reputation of being especially adept with grass horses and fillies, and he has won numerous low-level graded stakes throughout the Mid-Atlantic.
Done Talking (Eclipse Sportswire)
Frank has quietly maintained a top-shelf clientele at Elloree.
“I think he’s the best-kept secret in horse racing,” Romans said. “He’s the last person around I listen to in the game – how to buy horses at the sale, how to be patient with them, things to look for when they’re young. We work all the sales together and he comes with me.
“There aren’t as many that have grown up in it like he did. It takes a long time to get to the point where he is. There’s a lot of struggles along the way. There are very few with that kind of foundation anymore. He’s got two horses in this year’s Derby he broke on his farm, and he could have had a couple others if things had broken the right way.”
Jerry Crawford, a general partner in Donegal Racing, which owns Dullahan, agrees. They have had many successes together, including Paddy O’Prado, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby in 2010.
Frank has watched several horses he raised — Triple Buck, At the Threshold, Demon’s Begone and Paddy O’Prado among them — get to the Derby. He helped pick out the stakes winner Gin Talking for Lou Rehak and Willie White — the Skeedattle Boys — from a sale in Timonium, Md., and she won a handful of stakes and is the grand dam of Done Talking.
“He lets the horses be horses,” Crawford said. “He doesn’t have them look like animals in a zoo where they’re heavy and slicked up and ornate looking. He turns them out every day and horses get toughened up as a result of the approach he takes.”
After Done Talking won the Illinois Derby, Romans called Hammy up and insisted he stable the horse in his Churchill Downs barn for the Derby. Hammy planned to arrive in Louisville early in the week, with Frank showing up Thursday.
The brothers don’t see each other as much as they used to, but now, after all the years of hard work, will be together on the greatest stage in racing.
“Frank and I didn’t sit down and talk about things like this too much,” Hammy said. “You always want good horses to train, and you watch the big outfits accomplish it, and you always want one to go there to try it and say you did it yourself, so we finally got one and we’re going. I’m not panicky; I’m looking forward to it.”
“It’s a shame he doesn’t get more recognition than he does,” Hammy said of Frank, “because, like kids that learn more from ages 2 to 7 than they do at any other time in their lives, it’s the same thing with race horses. He teaches them and gets them in that competitiveness. He’s a real good horseman. He really is.”
Frank loves that Hammy is finally getting his big chance.
“I said to Hammy, ‘This colt is the right kind. He might get you there.’ And he’s done a nice job, and I think he’s got a shot. It’s such an experience. Racing is a wonderful thing. Maybe we can get lucky.”