Tom Smith – horse trainer

The story of Seabiscuit is one of the best in horse racing. In the 1930’s, Seabiscuit became America’s horse, lifting the spirits of people who were suffering due to the Great Depression. While the story of this little horse is familiar to many people, the story of his trainer Tom Smith is not. It is a story of a man who loved horses, had a patient hand for training these amazing animals, and was cast out by the sport he lived for. The sad story of Seabiscuit trainer Tom Smith is one the readers of EZ Horse Betting will not soon forget.

Silent Tom

On May 20, 1878, a crying baby boy was born to poor parents in the remote woods of Georgia. No one could have known it then, but the crying baby would grow into a man that was known for his reluctance to speak. Robert Thomas “Tom” Smith demonstrated a pattern throughout his life. He preferred to let the animals under his care speak for him.

Tom Smith displayed an affinity for horses from a very young age. He just seemed to have a knack for communicating with the animals. At the time, horses were still a primary form of transportation in the United States. They were also indispensable for work on the farms which dotted the American landscape. Tom soon found out that his way with horses could earn him a living, and he spent his young years working on cattle ranches. He even trained horses for the Croatian Cavalry.

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The life of a horseman was not an easy one for Tom Smith. He traveled around the country for most of his young years, looking for work wherever he could find it. He befriended Indians on reservations who respected Tom’s skills with a horse. He often lived in the woods near racetracks, hoping to earn some money in whatever way he could. When the Great Depression hit, Tom must not have felt it as much as some others. He already knew what it was like to be broke.

As he grew into adulthood, a nickname was bestowed upon him. “Silent Tom” was a man who often preferred the company of his horses to the company of other men. He had no idea that he was about to be thrust into the spotlight where his every move would be scrutinized by the American public.

Seabiscuit and Tom Smith

Race horse owner Charles Howard was no stranger to adversity himself. Perhaps that is why he chose the loner Tom Smith to train his horse Seabiscuit. Howard, a prosperous card dealer, had been struck hard by the Great Depression. He had also suffered a divorce and the death of his young son in an accident. Howard was a broken man when he decided to change his fortunes and become a race horse owner. Before he could start his stable, Howard needed a trainer.

The story of their meeting is fictionalized in the 2003 film Seabiscuit, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand. In the film, Howard spots Smith as he is trying to prevent the slaughter of a wounded horse. It is likely that Howard appreciated Smith’s caring nature. He hired the man to oversee the operations of his stable.

Their first task was to select horses to train. Smith had taken note of a small horse one morning while viewing workouts at an eastern racetrack. The horse was trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons and wasn’t highly regarded. He was small, just 5’2” at the withers, and preferred eating over racing. When Smith first saw the horse, he claimed that the horse gave him a sideways look which seemed to state, “What in the hell are you looking at?” Smith saw something that others did not in the horse’s attitude. He also saw something else. Fitzsimmons was taking the wrong track with Seabiscuit. He believed the horse’s ineptitude was due to laziness, and his solution was to order his exercise riders to hit Seabiscuit ever harder with the whip. The harder they struck him, the more rebellious the horse became.

Smith is reputed to have told Howard, “Get me that horse.” Howard didn’t question. Charles Howard was known for leaving his employees alone to do their jobs. He had confidence in his decision to hire Smith. If Tom said the horse was right, the horse was right. Howard claimed the horse and Seabiscuit became the foundation of the new Howard racing stable.

It soon became apparent that Tom Smith had his hands full. Seabiscuit ate twice as much as other horses and worked two time less. The horse loved to remain in his stall most of the time. His other favorite activity was to lie down in the grass paddocks. When the time came to train, Seabiscuit wanted none of it. His previous experiences with people were not good. The horse did not trust humans.

Smith tried many methods to get the horse to calm down. He put goats in Seabiscuit’s stall to keep him company. The horse quickly snatched them up in his jaws and tossed them out. Finally, Smith came up with an idea. He removed the wall between Seabiscuit’s stall and the stall of another horse. The two bonded and Seabiscuit began to calm down.

But he was still a horror on the racetrack. Although he was blazing fast, Seabiscuit would run “green.” He was all over the track and riders found it hard to control him. Then, a jockey named Red Pollard entered the picture. Like Howard and Smith, Pollard had endured a hard life. He was blind in one eye, something Smith and Howard did not discover until he lost an important race, had been abandoned by his parents, and was often forced to earn money as a bareknuckle boxer. Pollard and Seabiscuit clicked. The two were inseparable. As time moved on, Seabiscuit began winning races.

The climax of Seabiscuit’s career was a match race against the legendary War Admiral, a race that Seabiscuit won with George Woolf substituting for the injured Pollard. The career of Seabiscuit changed Tom Smith forever. Smith was suddenly in demand by the biggest owners in horse racing. One owner that set her sights on Silent Tom was cosmetics icon Elizabeth Arden Graham. She hired Smith to train horses for her farm, Maine Chance.

Success and a Fall From Grace

Arden and Smith were a contentious pair, to say the least. Arden was a hands-own owner. She wanted to know everything that happened with her horses. This was in stark contrast to Howard who preferred to stay out of the way. Smith was not used to having someone in his business all the time. Yet, the two managed to work together and achieve success.

In 1945, the leading stable in horse racing was Calumet farm. The stable churned out winners at a ridiculous rate. Nevertheless, Smith guided Maine Chance to an amazing season which saw the farm best Calumet in terms of winnings. Arden was ecstatic. Things continued to improve, and in 1947 the Arden-owned Jet Pilot claimed the Kentucky Derby.

Although Smith was approaching 70, he was at the top of his game. Few trainers had a way with horses like Silent Tom. He may have been the inspiration for the term “horse whisperer.” With the entire racing world beneath him, Smith was given a measure of respect wherever he went. The respect was merited. Smith had cultivated a reputation as one of the most honorable men in the sport. He did not turn to illicit drugs like so many other trainers were beginning to do. Smith preferred to keep things natural. He likely felt that trainers who used drugs were taking shortcuts to compensate for their own lack of knowledge.

But Smith had discovered one of life’s painful truths. You can lead by example and hold yourself to high standards. This does not guarantee that your employees will adhere to the same principles. Smith was now working for a large stable which required he assistance of grooms and stable hands. During his time with Howard, Smith had performed a large number of the duties himself. Now he had help. Lots of it.

Smith would have done his best to check out the men he hired, but he could not be with them each moment at the racetrack. One race day while Smith was not present, an employee was observed spraying an unknown substance into the nostrils of one of the Arden horses. The atomizer used to deliver the spray was confiscated and its contents were tested. The results can back as ephedrine. Ephedrine is used in humans as a breathing aid. It is also one of the ingredients used to make the illegal drug methamphetamine.

The fallout was severe. Tom Smith was summoned to face the tough New York racing stewards. He was given no advance notice of the meeting and was not allowed legal representation. Smith had to defend himself on the spot. He admitted that he had used ephedrine to treat ill horses, but claimed he never used the substance on race day. Further hearings were scheduled. Arden arranged to have two attorneys represent Smith in these hearings.

It was to no avail. Smith had his training license revoked. Some say that he never recovered from the blow. He as eventually placed in a sanitarium where he would die in 1957. While his license was suspended it is said that Tom Smith would sit outside the gates of Santa Anita racetrack and listen to the sounds of the horses he loved so. He was no longer welcome inside.

Even if Smith did not himself use the atomizer, which is still in dispute, he was responsible for the actions of his employees die to something known as the absolute insurer rule. This rule stated that trainers we accountable for their horses at all times, even when they were not present.

Tom Smith’s Tarnished Legacy

Sadly, these events tarnished the legacy of Tom Smith forever. It was even suggested that Seabiscuit’s success had been die to the use of illegal drugs which were never discovered. To be fair, the incident with the employee and the atomizer was not the only one. Racing investigators had been watching Smith for months. On prior occasions, they testified that they had witnessed Smith use the atomizer himself. It was most often done on a horse that would then go on to win its race. Some will contend that Smith purposely allowed his stable hand to take the fall, and that maybe they even had an agreement that this would be the case.

Why would a trainer as talented as Tom Smith throw everything away? No one can say for sure. Maybe he was under a lot of pressure to win. Maybe he sold out to the game, as so many trainers do today. What we know for sure is that Tom Smith’s downfall is reflective of what happens in racing today all too often. Popular trainers like Scott Lake, Doug O’Neill, and Steve Asmussen have all fallen under the scrutiny of investigators and been accused of using illegal medications. The problem in the sport today has reached epidemic proportions.

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