Cooke knows way around track, too

December 12, 1993|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Staff Writer

Building a football stadium next to a racetrack is a natural for Jack Kent Cooke.

The owner of the Redskins also owns about 100 thoroughbreds that he races over jumps in Virginia and at the flat tracks in California and Kentucky.

If the plans go through to build the new Redskins stadium next to Laurel Race Course, it's possible that Cooke could send a division of his racing stable to compete in Maryland.

Cooke is a fixture at some of the Virginia point-to-points. "He lives close by [at the 1,000-acre Kent Farms in Middleburg] so he can get there and see them run," said his trainer, D. M. 'Speedy" Smithwick Jr., who first got involved by training a few jumpers such as Big Estero and Redskin Chief for Cooke and now has his first string of 13 runners at Santa Anita Park.

Smithwick is the son of D. Michael Smithwick, the Hall of Fame steeplechase trainer who lives in Hydes in Baltimore County. Smithwick's mother, Dot, who operates Sunnybank Farm in Middleburg, now trains Cooke's jumpers.

Cooke, 81, didn't get into the racing game until about 15 years ago when he bought six yearling fillies. By that time he had become majority owner of the Redskins and had disposed of his professional basketball (Los Angeles Lakers) and hockey (Los Angeles Kings) teams.

"It fills the last remaining void in my life in the sports field," Cooke told The Blood-Horse Magazine about his decision to get involved in horse racing.

Cooke made his first big splash in the industry in 1984 when he purchased the 503-acre Elmendorf Farm in Lexington, Ky. For more than a century, Elmendorf had been one of America's premier thoroughbred farms, owned at one time by the Widener family and then by Max Gluck, who bred 126 stakes winners on the property.

Cooke bought the farm by sealed bid from Gluck's estate. At the time, the land was valued at $7.5 million, and the 327 horses that came with it were appraised at $40 million.

The number of horses has been substantially reduced.

"In addition to the 13 horses here [at Santa Anita], there is a second division of about 14 horses running in Kentucky," Speedy Smithwick said. "Then there are 30 to 40 broodmares at Elmendorf and 20 yearlings that are being broken in Ocala, [Fla.] ."

Cooke's "big horse" right now is the 3-year-old Danzig colt, Zignew, who has won three races in California this year and is being pointed for the rich Charles H. Strub series for older horses at Santa Anita Park this winter. Cooke's 2-year-old filly, Roget's Fact, was recently third in the Miesque Stakes at Hollywood Park. This year Cooke ran Only Alpha in the Belmont Stakes, but the big, burly colt was an also-ran, although he since has won in California.

"The idea is to come up with a classics winner," Smithwick said. "Mr. Cooke wants to win the [Kentucky] Derby. He plans on being around a long time, so he is now upgrading his broodmare band and is trying to breed a good horse. Last year he spent $250,000 to buy a daughter of Nijinsky II at the yearling sales and plans to breed her when she finishes racing."

Smithwick, who has been associated with Cooke for about seven years, said he has found his boss to be "very fair. He's tough. He's a smart businessman. I've found him to be the kind of guy that says what he means and means what he says."

Phil Grove's many honors

February will be a busy month for Phil Grove, the veteran Maryland-born jockey who recently has been riding at Delaware Park.

But instead of picking up mounts during the month, he will be picking up awards for lifetime achievements in sports.

First, Grove will be honored at Santa Anita Park and presented with the George Woolf Award, probably the nation's most prestigious prize awarded to a jockey. Grove is not only being honored for his athletic ability, but also for his character.

Grove, who was born in Frederick, was the nation's leading apprentice in 1967. By 1990, he had won over 3,500 races, including winning the leading rider titles at a number of Maryland and West Virginia race meets.

Then when he returns from Santa Anita, Grove will be one of three living athletes installed in Maryland's Athletic Hall of Fame.

Also to be inducted at the Feb. 21 ceremony at Martin's West is two-time All-American football player Tom Gatewood and top amateur golfer Ralph Bogart. Reggie Lewis, the late Boston Celtics player, is being honored posthumously.

Grove is only the second jockey to be installed in the Maryland Hall of Fame, joining steeplechase jockey Charles Fenwick Jr.

To be eligible, an inductee must be born in Maryland. The committee that selects the honorees is comprised of about a dozen local sportswriters.

Grove lives in Frederick County, where he maintains a small thoroughbred breeding farm.

Maryland stakes upgraded

At the recent annual graded stakes committee meeting in Lexington, Ky., four of Maryland's stakes races were upgraded in status and none of the currently graded stakes lost their ranking.

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