Legendary steeplechase jockey Tommy Smith dies
Saturday, Mar. 9
Jay Trump, with Tommy Smith aboard, took the lead after the last fence in the Grand National, and won by three-quarters of a length, the first American jockey to ride an American horse to win the famous race. Photo by Peter Winants
Crompton “Tommy” Smith, Jr., a legendary amateur steeplechase jockey born and raised in Virginia's hunt country, died March 5 at his home in Upperco, Md. at age 75.
He succumbed to a bad bout of the flu complicated by a 2001 training fall that left him quadriplegic.
Smith was the first American jockey to ride an American horse to win England's Grand National steeplechase. He also won five Maryland Hunt Cups and many of America's timber classics.
Smith was born Oct. 16, 1937, in Middleburg. He lived with his parents and two sisters at Featherbed Farm in Middleburg then Rhode Island Farm north of Warrenton near Airlie until he went off to Princeton.
Father Crompton Smith Sr. was a steeplechase jockey as was grandfather Harry Worcester Smith, founder of the Masters of Foxhounds Association and part of the famous Great Foxhound Match at Piedmont in 1905.
Young Tommy Smith, as he was always known, began foxhunting and showing as a young child, already exhibiting great skill and courage, according to younger sister Kitty Smith, who lives in Delaplane.
“He was quite the risktaker from day one,” she recalled Monday, fondly remembering her bold older brother. “I remember one day – he had to be about 5 or 6. He tied a towel around his neck and jumped out of a window. He told our parents that he figured if it worked for Superman, it'd work for him.”
An excellent student, Smith went off to boarding school at Taft in Watertown, Conn. He graduated in 1955 and went to Princeton.
But the siren call of foxhunting and steeplechasing was too strong. He dropped out and came home to Virginia.
Smith picked right back up with jump racing, catching the eye of Upperville steeplechase owner Theo Randolph, and earning a trip up to her trainer Mikey Smithwick's in Maryland.
From Smithwick's, Smith picked up rides for trainer Bobby Fenwick, including his first major victory, the 1959 Maryland Hunt Cup aboard Fluctuate.
Smith broke his foot in a fall the next spring, so Smithwick subbed on Fluctuate to win the 1960 Hunt Cup.
It turned out to be quite the lucky break.
That May, 1960, Smith's godmother Cincinnati horsewoman Mary Stephenson had attended the Virginia Gold Cup races at the old Broadview course. Stephenson was so impressed with the pageantry and excitement, she asked her godson to find her a steeplechase prospect.
Smith hobbled around the next few weeks at the old Shenandoah Downs in Charles Town, W.Va., studying conformation and disposition, and prices, of the horses each morning during training hours. He also had an order for a 'chase prospect from Hickory Tree Farm owner Alice duPont Mills, so he picked out two, both inexpensive but big, intelligent-looking young geldings.
Mills, who lived in Middleburg, got first dibs. She took one look at Jay Trump and turned him down flatly for a thick calcification on his front knee, a leftover from an earlier training incident. Mills said the horse would never be able to jump.
Absentee buyer Stephenson procured Jay Trump by default.
Smith took Jay Trump to Maryland, teaching him to jump and hunting with the Green Spring Valley. The bay proved a quick study, winning his first sanctioned start over fences, at Maryland's Grand National meet in 1962 with Smith in the irons.
Jay Trump and Smith set a new course record winning the '63 Maryland Hunt Cup. The following year, Jay Trump swept all three Maryland timber classics – My Lady's Manor, the Grand National and the testing four-mile Hunt Cup.
The horse qualified for the English Grand National, and Smith and Jay Trump both shipped to trainer Fred Winter's yard in Lambourn to prep for the world's most famous steeplechase, at four-plus miles even more strenuous than the Hunt Cup.
Jay Trump won two prep races in England but received a favorable handicap for the National. He was sent off at 16-1 by most bookies as fifth-choice of 47 starters in the 1965 race.
Although Jay Trump was slow away from the tapes, Smith kept his cool even though the horse was unnerved by the crowded company of 46 others.
The jockey directed his skillful jumper along the inside of the huge course, staying out of traffic – and out of trouble, sailing over the last jump to hold off favorite Freddie to win by 3/4ths of a length.
In 1966, Jay Trump and Smith resumed their domination of American timber, winning the Manor, finishing second in the Maryland Grand National and retiring the valuable Maryland Hunt Cup with a third victory in the prestigious race.
Noted sporting photographer Douglas Lees knew Smith, though he lamented that he “wasn't quite old enough” to have photographed the rider in his racing heyday of the '50s and '60s.
“All my heroes of the photography world did, though,” said Warrenton-based Lees. “Peter Winants shot Tommy Smith and Jay Trump for the (Thoroughbred magazines.) Marshall Hawkins, Pooch McClanahan. Raymie Woolfe even followed him to England for Sports Illustrated. When's the last time you saw jump racing in Sports Illustrated?
“It was the classic, amazing story,” Lees said. “The horse was nothing on the flat [track, winless in eight starts]. His first jump start [at the Warrenton Hunt Point-to-Point] was a disaster. Then they put Tommy Smith up on the horse [at Piedmont the next week] and it was magic.”
Smith won the NSA's Ambrose Clark Award in 1966. Jay Trump was inducted into steeplehasing's Hall of Fame in 1971. Smith won the S. Bryce Wing Award in 2008 from the Maryland Hunt Cup Association.
Smith retired from racing in 1966 – “he'd done everything he ever set out to do,” his sister said. “And more.”
He spent a couple of years in the Virgin Islands, then moved to Minnesota and worked as an executive for a health-care businesses there and in Boston. He “retired” from business in 1995 and eased right back into the horse world in Baltimore County.
He dabbled in breeding, and kept a hand in finding quality horses on the flat and switching them to 'chasing. He found multiple Virginia champion Antonio Star for John Pettibone at Laurel Park.
He was riding a difficult young horse one day in 2001. The horse reared up and flipped over on him, leaving him paralyzed below his chest, with limited movement in his arms.
“He never felt sorry for himself, never complained,” Kitty Smith said. “He had a great attitude.”
Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Frances Cochran Smith; children William Smith of Carlisle, Mass., and Alexandra Smith of Upperco; sister Kitty of Delaplane, and two grandchildren.
A memorial service was held at St.Thomas Church in Reisterstown, Md. Friday, March 8.