It takes a magician of sorts to combine high-priced competitors with a teammate who can at times seem more interested in self-promotion that the results of the team, and do that whilst getting someone else to plop down the funds for the whole show.
Combine that with elaborate tactics to ensure that the team has the most advantageous positioning prior to a competition, managing the expectations of the public and ownership, and dealing with thousands of details on a daily basis.
That is an approximate job description of a thoroughbred racehorse trainer, and one of the most proficient who has ever prepared horses for the turf has the name of Thomas John Smith, more commonly known as T.J. Smith (3 September 1916 – 2 September 1998).
No hyperbole is necessary when it comes to describing his record.
T.J. Smith was around horses from the time he could walk. He drove draft teams and broke horses for his dad when he (T.J., not dad) was just seven years of age. Hard times such as those in which he grew up did not facilitate his receiving any formal education, but he would consider himself fortunate no doubt to be around horses. He did love to ride and he entertained becoming a jockey.
He was only 13 when he left home to explore those ambitions, and he did have the skill, but his DNA determined that he would soon physically outgrow the dimensions of a thoroughbred jockey, so he made the decision to have a go at riding jumps. That ambition was squashed by a crash that led to a broken hip.
T.J. Smith received his trainer’s license in 1941, more or less on his own, without any connections or possessions beyond his horse Bragger. He actually rented two stalls at a track, one of which he lived in. Bragger was foaled in 1936 and won 13 races for Smith, including the Tramway Stakes. Those results would result in his receiving some attention in the racing community, but that had a negative effect.
He started celebrating, spending money on fancy clothes, expensive cars, and worse still, he developed the habit of drinking heavily. It nearly stopped him before he could be truly established. While most trainers are quick to point out that it was the horse that deserves the credit, Bragger went a stride beyond, racing and winning until he was ten. Bragger died in a stable fire, but along the way, those five years were sufficient to provide an epiphany for Smith and an opportunity to refocus on what truly mattered to him.
A descendant of Carbine named Playboy would further Smith’s career. Playboy won the first truly major race of Smith’s career as a trainer, the 1949 AJC Derby. Both in terms of prestige and financial payout, that race was a turning point, since Playboy went off heavily backed by Smith at 100 – 1 odds. That horse would do equally well, if not better, in 1950, winning the Hill Stakes, the Craven Plate, the St. Leger Stakes and the Fisher Plate.
That good fortune came to an abrupt halt for Smith in 1950 when he received a five-year ban over a doping scandal involving a two-year-old horse in his charge. He did manage to talk his way out of that scrape with nothing worse than a severe tongue-lashing.
From that point, things got continuously better for T.J. Smith. His reputation, growing as a result of the outcomes he was producing at the track, provided him with connections amongst the racing set who spent lavishly on bloodstock and wanted the best possible setting in order to realise the maximum return on their investment.
Beginning in 1953, he won the Sydney Trainers’ premiership, and then backed that with another 32 consecutive. He was edged out in the 1985-86 season, but then added another premiership in 1987-88.
He won the first of his eventual two Melbourne Cups in 1955 when he teamed Toparoa with Neville Sellwood, possibly preventing Rising Fast from repeating his 1954 win. He also trained Redcraze to secure wins in the Cox Plate and the Caulfield Cup in the years from 1955-57.
It would seem, though, that his most impressive charge was Tulloch, but Gunsynd and Kingstown Town, all Hall of Famers, were prepared by Smith at one time or another.
T. J. Smith produced his second and final Melbourne Cup win in 1981. That horse was Just A Dash. That was the year after the current race quality classification system was rolled out, and Smith would notch a total of 279 victories in races that would become, or in the case of the latter stages of his career, were Group 1 races. That figure includes, along with the two Cups, seven Cox Plates, six Golden Slippers and four Caulfield Cups.
Smith is credited for training innovations still in practice today. He kept his horses in form, abstaining from spelling them. Years before anyone knew the science behind the benefits of protein, he was nurturing horses with supplemental protein to enhance muscle development and speed the recovery process. The devotion he showed in nursing Tulloch back to heath when the horse contracted a virus that kept him away from the track for two years was nothing short of miraculous. Tulloch came back stronger to the extent that his 1957 AJC Derby victory bettered the previous record established by Phar Lap by two seconds. Many years later, he was responsible for training Kingston Town when that remarkable horse won three consecutive Cox Plates.
He passed his skills along to his daughter, Gai Waterhouse. She followed in dad’s footsteps, assuming the leadership of Smith’s operation, Tulloch Lodge, in 1994.
T.J. Smith was inducted posthumously into the Australian Racing Hall of Fame in 2001, the year the Hall opened. He missed living to see that by three years, but he would have been equally delighted if he had lived to see his daughter achieve the same distinction in 2007. He would also have enjoyed seeing the T.J. Smith Stakes Group 1 sprint at Sydney’s Randwick racecourse.
When it comes to great Australian thoroughbred trainers, there is little dispute including Smith’s name with those of Bart Cummings and Colin Hayes. Rising from a hard scrabble beginning, getting where he got as a result of hard work and perseverance, and passing along his skills to another generation represent a success story that is compelling and the stuff of legend.