Tommy Smith: Jockey involved in one of the greatest finishes to the Grand National


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The Independent Online

The amateur jockey Tommy Smith became the first American to win the Grand National on a horse born, bred and owned in the United States – the plucky eight-year-old Jay Trump – in a dramatic finish in 1965. Jockey and horse became legends in the US for a race memorable not only for one of the closest finishes in its history but for the fact that it looked like being the last Grand National, since the Aintree course was up for sale to property developers.

Amateur riders had won the National before and American-bred horses had also triumphed, notably Sergeant Murphy in 1923 and Battleship (son of the great Man o' War) in 1938, but Smith, Jay Trump and Smith's godmother Mary Stephenson were the first US horse/jockey/owner combination to win. It wasn't quite an all-American victory since Smith and Stephenson had brought their horse to England a year earlier to be trained specifically for the National, by the great former jockey Fred Winter in his first season as a trainer. Winter had won the race twice in the saddle and would also go on to train the 1966 winner, Anglo. Smith had come over with Jay Trump to make the gelding feel at home, and to be trained himself by Winter to tackle the mighty course.

On 27 March 1965 Smith and Jay Trump were neck and neck in the run-in with the race favourite, the Scottish-trained Freddie and his jockey Pat McCarron. “It's America and Scotland as they reach the last fence,” said the BBC commentator Peter O'Sullevan. Approaching the last, Smith took a calculated risk.

He had never ridden Aintree but he had got up at dawn that day to walk the course, even climbing to spreadeagle himself on the final fence to feel the texture of its spruce. So when Freddie and McCarron loomed alongside him, Smith deliberately brushed through the loose top of that last fence to gain a vital couple of yards. Jay Trump's head, with its distinctive white diamond, dipped close to the turf on landing but Smith's bold move paid off and he drove the dark bay gelding, which he had bought on behalf of his godmother for $2,000 and had nurtured back from a life-threatening injury, to victory by three-quarters of a length. The following week's edition of Sports Illustrated carried the headline “The Jump That Won A Grand National”.

For Smith, it was his first and last attempt at the race. He ended that 1965 season with a third place on Jay Trump, behind the great mare Hyères III, in the French equivalent of the Grand National, the Grand Steeple-Chase de Paris at the Auteuil track. He gave up racing the following year and concentrated on his job as a health care executive in Boston until his retirement in 1995. Having survived the 1965 Grand National – in which only 14 of the 47 starters finished and which gave further voice to the animal rights activists – Smith fell from a horse during a leisure ride in 2001, an accident which left him a quadriplegic.

Although Aintree was eventually sold in 1973 to the property developer Bill Davies, he kept the Grand National going, and the race's future was secured when a Trust run by the Jockey Club (Jockey Club Racecourses) gained control in the 1980s.

Smith's life, that of his horse and that famous final jump were immortalised in the book The Will to Win – The True Story of Tommy Smith and Jay Trump (1966) by the horsewoman and author Jane McIlvaine McClary. Its foreword was by the former jockey, and best-selling author, Dick Francis, who never won a Grand National but came close on the Queen Mother's Devon Loch in 1956 when the horse inexplicably did a belly-flop a few yards from the finish line.

Crompton “Tommy” Smith, steeplechase jockey and health care executive: born Middleburg, Virginia 16 October 1937: married 1964 Frances Cochran (one son, one daughter); died Upperco, Maryland 5 March 2013.