Obituary: Tommy Smith

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TOMMY SMITH was one of the Australian racing industry's best known figures.

From humble origins, he reached the pinnacle of his profession as a trainer, astounding people along the way with a celebrated eye for a horse. While some of the champions he trained from his Sydney base would have won nothing on looks alone, they took Smith into the record books and into racing history.

Any sportsman who compares themselves to the legendary cricketer Sir Don Bradman - "I've known some great trainers and I've beaten them all", Smith said. "I happen to be like Don Bradman, a bit better than the rest" - would usually be laughed out of their profession. But Smith produced the statistics to go, at least, some way towards backing up his claim. Securing 33 successive trainers' championships in Sydney from 1952/53 to 1984/85 is such proof. So is the number-crunching fact that he trained more than 7,000 winners during his extensive career, 279 of them at Group 1 level. Anyone who can train that many winners of races at the highest level compares favourably to the best ever racehorse trainers.

Smith's big wins included two in Australia's greatest race, the Melbourne Cup, with Toporoa in 1955 and Just A Dash in 1981. In between he came close to landing a third Melbourne Cup when his outstanding horse Kingston Town was beaten in a photo-finish by Gurner's Lane in 1982.

Aside from the Melbourne Cup, Smith won every major race in the Australia calendar, including four Caulfield Cups, nine AJC Derbys, five Victoria Derbys, seven W.S. Cox Plates, three Australian Derbys, seven AJC Metropolitans, nine Rosehill Guineas, and five Golden Slippers.

Not bad for one of five children who grew up in New South Wales during the harsh times of the Great Depression. Smith himself left school at 13, jumping out of a classroom window, never to return, when he decided he could not tolerate even one more clip around the ear from schoolteachers. Soon after he attempted a career as a jockey, which proved to be as unmemorable as his training achievements are astonishing. The only legacies of his time as a jockey were a solitary winner and a limp that never left him after a schooling accident.

Then came the switch to training which began with just one horse, Bragger, who took nearly two years to make it to the racetrack, so wild was his character, but who somehow managed to win 13 times for Smith.

The first quality horse he trained was the 1949 AJC Derby winner Playboy, followed by one of his real champions, Tulloch, a moderate-looking, cheaply bought animal who turned out to be an outstanding racehorse, despite being sidelined for nearly two years with a serious illness. Tulloch even managed to beat the track record of Randwick of the renowned Phar Lap, regarded as Australia's greatest racehorse, perhaps even an equine Don Bradman. Kingston Town also failed to win many admirers on looks when sold as a yearling, but he was also an outstanding success for Smith. He became the first Australian horse to win over Aus$1,000,000 in prize money.

Smith became a man of considerable wealth through his racehorse training empire, achieving his ambition of owning a Rolls Royce. But his empire nearly collapsed after a stock exchange flotation in 1989, and was only rescued when his daughter Gai, also a successful trainer, persuaded the American billionaire John Kluge to back her father.

Richard Griffiths

Thomas James Smith, racehorse trainer: born Goolgowi, New South Wales 3 September 1918; married (one daughter); died Sydney 2 September 1998.