Mike Smith had a window of opportunity and took it. No, not that Mike Smith. Not the Hall of Fame jockey who won the Kentucky Derby on 50-1 shot Giacomo in 2005, but Mike Smith, the former trainer who left the game because he saw no future in it, the same year Giacomo won the Derby.
Smith has a lot of company. He is one of nearly 100 trainers who have vanished from the Southern California racing scene the last 10 years through either death or attrition. Fortunately, Smith had a backup plan when he made his exit. Instead of saddling horses, the 56-year-old Idaho native now gives a leg up to home owners refurbishing their abode. Smith is a licensed home improvement honcho, as his business card duly notes:
"Virtual Windows & Doors, Mike Smith, Glendora, Ca., 91740. Cell, 626 826-8354. Vinyl Replacement, Windows & Doors, Kitchen & Bathroom Remodels."
Even after displaying his skill as a trainer by developing Humorous Lady into a stakes winner, Smith could not cultivate more patrons. That proved to be his downfall in the fickle business known as horse racing.
"Even after I had Humorous Lady, who won the Grade II Astarita Stakes at Belmont Park in 2002, for some reason, I never really got one big owner to go with me," Smith said, reflecting on his departure as a trainer. "It was tough getting new clients, and the guy I did have, who I thought was going to stay with me, well, let’s just say it wasn’t a good situation.
"A lot of the customers I did have were getting older and getting out of the business. They didn’t want to run horses any more. Clients were dwindling, and I already had my window business going. I had been doing that for almost 17 years. That was picking up, and I was subsidizing my training with it.
"I decided to get out of racing, because I was busy all the time with my doors and windows. Later I branched out doing kitchens and bathrooms. Now I do everything. I have people who do stucco, wood floors, everything. It’s good."
And, he still dabbles in horse flesh. He managed multiple stakes-winning sprinter Greg’s Gold for trainer David Hofmans, and he has broodmare clients with an outfit known as Gulf Coast Thoroughbreds. "I’ve been to every sale in Kentucky since I left (training)," Smith said. "The economy has affected the sales, and they’re down, but they’re always down. They’re just down now because they’re bad sales.
"It will be interesting to see what happens at the (Barretts) March 2-year-olds in training sale. I think it will be like it was in 1970, when the bottom horses weren’t very good, but the middle and upper horses still stayed pretty strong."
He has no regrets about going from horses to homes, even though his confidence as a trainer never waned. He had a creditable resume. Born in Malad, Idaho, where Farrell Jones was from (Farrell exercised the fabled Seabiscuit, and is the father of retired trainer Gary Jones), Smith began in racing at the age of 15, and was assistant to Gary for 10 years before going on his own for 10 years.
"The home improvement business has been a good move for me overall," said Smith, a John Denver lookalike. "I could train as well as the next guy, but if you didn’t have an owner who would let you buy and sell (horses), you had little chance of success. Humorous Lady was the first horse I was able to buy from another trainer for one of my owners. We paid $300,000 for her, and they had her insured for $1 million when she died. She was really a nice filly."
But not nice enough to keep from changing vocations, or forgetting one of racing’s truisms.
"When I was working with Gary Jones," Smith recalled, "he told me this about horses: ‘If they can’t run, I can’t train them.’"
• Racing’s newest sensation, unbeaten and untested Rail Trip, has been nominated to the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 7. However, running a horse back in 16 days is not a trademark of Ron Ellis’ training style.
I might have bet that Rail Trip would be running in the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap on April 4, but Ellis said that he probably would not race him there.
• Look for the next Kentucky Derby Future Book add on to be Zensational, trained by Bob Baffert for Ahmed Zayat.
• Tip to Gov. Schwarzenegger on how to alleviate California’s budget crunch: Eliminate turn signals on all vehicles driven in the Golden State. Nobody uses them (except me, of course).