Hamilton A. Smith is in a rut -- a big rut from which he doesn't want to break free.
A trainer stabled at Laurel Park, Smith is immersed in the greatest stretch of his career. A big reason is the 5-year-old chestnut gelding he saddled yesterday in the $50,998 Native Dancer Handicap.
The horse's name? Big Rut.
"This horse is as good as any horse around Maryland right now," Smith said. "He's possibly the best racehorse I've ever had."
Eighteen days shy of his 53rd birthday, Smith has won 23 percent of his races the past two years. During the fall meet at Laurel from Oct. 15 to Dec. 31, he saddled 72 starters and won 23 races.
That 32 percent win rate was 7 percent higher than the leading trainer, Dale Capuano, who won five more races (28) with 39 more starters (111).
"I've just got a bunch of nice horses to train," said Smith, who began training in Maryland in 1977 after breaking in at New England tracks. "In the past, I didn't have them."
He gets many from his brother, Franklin, who breaks horses at the Elloree Training Center in South Carolina. Franklin Smith develops horses for owners around the country, and to the owners who don't have trainers, Franklin suggests his brother.
That brotherly connection has stocked Hamilton Smith's stable, but it did not bring him Big Rut. Smith can take credit for that. He persuaded one of his owners, James W. Peters Jr., to pay $45,000 for Big Rut shortly after the horse turned 3.
A part-time resident of Virginia, Peters spends the cold months in the Cayman Islands. That's where he was yesterday when Big Rut swelled his earnings to $298,906 (24 starts, 12 wins, 5 seconds, 4 thirds).
Only four horses contested the Native Dancer Handicap, but they were regarded equally. In one of the closest betting races ever at Laurel Park, Big Rut, Algar and Greatsilverfleet were 2-1, and Dr. Banting was 5-2. Big Rut was the slight favorite.
Until the far turn of the 1 1/8 -mile race, the quartet performed like a jazz band -- tight and in sync, only a few lengths separated them. But Big Rut stuck his nose in front, then his head and neck, and finally shook free down the stretch by a couple of lengths. Dr. Banting cut the gap to three-quarters length at the wire, but Big Rut dug in and preserved the win.
"When he gets in front like he did here, he's hard to beat," his trainer said. "He doesn't like horses to get by him. He's the gamest horse I've had."
Smith said he'll probably run Big Rut on Feb. 7 in the Harrison Johnson Stakes at Laurel Park. By then the state's top jockey, Edgar Prado, who is serving a seven-day suspension, will be back and perhaps riding the horse.
But yesterday, Larry Reynolds gained the mount and, after the photo session in the winner's circle, gave the credit to Smith.
"Hammy does a terrific job with his horses," Reynolds said. "He's having a helluva year."
At Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., Hal's Pal, whose jockey raced without a whip at the instruction of his trainer, took the lead entering the stretch and went on to win the $200,000 San Pasqual Handicap by three lengths over Malek.
Earlier in the day at Santa Anita, 16-1 long shot Rio Oro led all the way in winning the $110,300 San Miguel Stakes for 3-year-olds by three lengths over Iron Cat. Commitisize, the 9-10 favorite, finished fourth.
Ridden by Brice Blanc and carrying 112 pounds, Hal's Pal, as a 7-1 outsider, paid $17.40, $9.40 and $6.60.
The win was the second in four U.S. starts for Hal's Pal and his fifth in 19 lifetime starts.
Trainer Ben Cecil said Hal's Pal got hit one time with a whip in a race in Europe and dropped out of contention.
At Aqueduct in New York, Classic Time came from off the pace to score a convincing 5-length victory in the 23rd running of the $53,400 Count Fleet Stakes for 3-year-olds. It was the second straight win in three career starts for the colt.
Risky Buy, the favorite, led to the stretch but could not fight off Classic Time's challenge and finished second in the five-horse field. It was another neck to B Flat Major, who is trained by the Laurel-based H. Graham Motion .
At Gulfstream in Hallandale, Fal., Sir Bear, a 26-1 shot, held off Black Forest by three-quarters of a length to win the Broward Handicap for older horses.
Post times: Today, 12: 15 p.m.; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 12: 35 p.m.; Saturday, 12: 15 p.m.
Information: 410-792-7775 Out-of-town simulcasts: For results, scratches, call 410-792-7464.
Pub Date: 1/11/98