Its unusual to get through a week without meeting someone who hadn’t become entranced with the “theatre” of racing, at an early age.
I was reminded of Matthew Smith’s background, as his 5 year old gelding Plymouth Road led all the way to win the 2400 metres BM 82 at Randwick on Saturday. Matthew was born and reared at Wangaratta in Victoria, which boasts one of the oldest country racetracks in Australia(1855). His Dad Christopher was a member of the Wangaratta Turf Club Committee, and a keen racehorse owner.
Young Matthew missed very few Wangaratta meetings during his youth, and often attended other tracks in the region. He loved the entire racing scene, but his favourite pastime was to watch the pre race parade. He studied every horse in every race, and soon developed a keen eye for the thoroughbred.
He looked for the general health of a horse’s coat, and the animal’s degree of fitness. He took a note of temperament and pre race behaviour, and fluency of gait. Month after month, year after year he honed this expertise, and there’s little doubt he has put it to good use during his life with racehorses.
By the mid 1990’s he had made up his mind to go overseas and seek experience in England, Ireland and America- an exciting adventure for a 26 year old budding Aussie horse trainer. Before departing, he spent a very valuable month in the Melbourne stables of John Sadler, learning as much about horse management as he could cram into his memory bank.
He’d been told several times, that the best way to find a job in a UK racing stable, was to be capable of riding “out”- the English and Irish equivalent of riding trackwork. Matthew was frozen by self doubt. He had never been on a horse in his life, and was aware that most capable riders have been in the saddle from an early age.
He’d been in England for a short time when he met Maggie Cox in Essex. This lady was well respected in eventing and the dressage arena, but was also a noted riding instructor. Matthew took readily to the saddle, and surprised himself with his rate of progress.
When he felt he was “half a rider”, he ventured to a little town called Hospital in County Limerick, where he had an introduction to National Hunt trainer Pat O’Donnell. A short time after Matthew’s arrival, Pat had to go away briefly, and it was his father “PJ” who was instrumental in giving the young Aussie, the fright of his life.
Everyone mounted up, and Matthew overheard “PJ” instructing all riders to go straight to the “drain paddock”. He was obviously puzzled as they entered a new paddock, and headed off at a strong canter.
Before he knew it, his mount was sailing over drains 2-3 metres wide, and deeper than he dared to contemplate. “PJ” noticed Matt’s state of anxiety, and in a lilting Irish accent shouted,”You’ll be right lad, just grab a handful of mane and the neck strap”.
Six months later Matthew had improved to the extent, that he felt ready to move on to a place he couldn’t wait to see. Ballydoyle is located in County Tipperary, and is widely recognized as the greatest horse training facility in the world. It is a sister facility to Coolmore Stud, and both are owned by John Magnier. Matt was fortunate to land a job in the famous training operation, and to meet Aidan O’Brien who was of a similar age, and not long in the job as master of Ballydoyle.
“I wasted no time telling Aidan I was only a novice rider, but keen to learn and desperate to improve”, recalled Matt.
Aidan had himself been a very successful trainer and rider of National Hunt horses, but quit when the tempting offer came from Ballydoyle. “Aidan and I got on extremely well”, said Matt. “A few months after I started, he decided to send me to a breaking in establishment run by his brother in law. I assisted in breaking in 50-60 yearlings over several months, and it was an enormous learning experience”.
Back to Ballydoyle went young Smith, destined to spend two years working alongside the man who, last year trained a world record 28 Group 1 winners.
Matthew had long harboured a desire to check out the training methods in the USA, and with a Ballydoyle reference on his CV, had little trouble landing a job as assistant trainer to Niall O’Callaghan. Irish born O’Callaghan trained successfully in America for many years, and had a big team in work when Matthew knocked on the door.
By the time his American sojourn was over Matthew had already lined up a job as stable foreman to the maestro Bart Cummings. He spent 5 years with the legendary trainer, and given his insatiable thirst for knowledge, you can imagine how much he got out of that chapter in his life.
“Bart didn’t readily offer to impart his knowledge, but was happy to answer your questions. You had to ask, or nothing was forthcoming”, recalled Matt.
With due trepidation, Matthew bit the bullet and set up under his own banner at Warwick Farm. It’s been a long winding road, but Matt and his wife Melissa have gradually established a successful and trusted business, supported by a loyal band of owners.
Melissa is a thoroughly experienced horse person who was riding at an early age and at just 17 was judged champion rider at the Sydney Royal. A few years later, she became a respected track work rider in Japan, and took the opportunity to promote Australian racing to the Japanese owners and trainers. She may well have helped to start the flow of Japanese horses to Australia.
Matt and Melissa also have a busy schedule of duties with Claudia (Age 10) and Sebastian (Age 7). Claudia has already earned distinction in the saddle, and recently became NSW Pony Club under 11 champion in Dressage. Sebastian, on the other hand seems more interested in football, but that may change when the genetic forces kick in.
All time favourite in the Smith establishment, is Hurtle Myrtle, a $55,000 yearling purchase, who won $800,000 before being snapped up by Segenhoe Stud for a cool 1 million dollars. “Myrtle” won the Group 1 Myer Classic, and a couple of Group 2’s.
Matt was pretty excited about a colt called Krupt in 2008. He won the Gr 2 Todman Stakes, and looked real Slipper material, but went amiss shortly after and had to be retired. Zin Zan Eddie was a stable favourite winning 5 races with 11 placings for $482,000. “He was a great fun horse, and won a race in every preparation”, recalled Matt.
Combat Kitty was purchased for $150,000 at the Magic Millions, and proved to be a real bargain. From just 13 starts she won 2 races with 4 placings, for $445,000. She ran second in the Magic Millions, and won a listed race over the Melbourne Cup carnival in 2011.
Cabernet was a terrific filly for the Smith stable. Her record was an impressive 23 runs for 6 wins and 6 placings for $363,000. She won 5 races on sydney metro tracks, and the listed Summoned Stakes at Sandown.
Faraway Town has done a wonderful job for her syndicate of owners with 3 wins and 7 placings for well over half a million dollars. She was placed in the Sires Produce and the Champagne Stakes as a 2 year old, and later won the Gr 3 Triscay Stakes. She’s still going strong, and was a pleasing first up third only last Saturday (June 23rd).
Matt is delighted to have Aqua D’Vinia back in work following major colic surgery. She’s a two time winner last time in, and looks to have loads of potential.
Matthew and supportive clients have turned to the international market in recent times, and have several overseas horses in the stable.
- The German horse Ilwendo will trial on Friday(June 29th).
- Also from Germany is Densy, who has been spelled.
- English galloper Invictus Prince who has been very pleasing in his trials, and will start on July 7th.
- French mare La Courbette who finished third at Flemington last Saturday, and will go back for the Final of that series on July 7th.
English galloper Fierce Impact has impressed in two Australian runs one of which was a win over 1400 metres. He was tried as a stayer in England, but didn’t cut the mustard, and will be restricted to shorter races here. Currently having a “freshener”.
Matt has had to adapt to the hustle and bustle of the Australian training environment, after his unforgettable experience in the serenity of county Tipperary, where people are calm, and horses are calmer.
In his quiet moments, Matthew, like most trainers dreams of that special horse walking through the gate. He also allows himself the occasional dream, that one day he might have his own little Ballydoyle.