Daniel Michael Smithwick, 77, won Hunt Cup 6 times

May 31, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Daniel Michael "Mikey" Smithwick, a thoroughbred trainer and steeplechase rider who won the Maryland Hunt Cup a record six times, died Monday of multiple system atrophy, a form of Parkinson's disease, at his Hydes farm. He was 77.

Born in Baltimore and raised on the family farm in Hydes, he was the son of Alfred Smithwick, an Irish-born horse trainer, and the former Emma Warner, an equestrian.

A Towson High School graduate, Mr. Smithwick and his elder brother, A. Patrick "Paddy" Smithwick, grew up learning how to train horses and ride from their father. His brother also became a top steeplechase rider, winning five national titles between 1950 and 1962.

The brothers "were one of the greatest steeplechase teams ever produced in this country," Snowden Carter, former Evening Sun racing writer and longtime editor of The Maryland Horse, wrote in 1975.

"But it wasn't pushed on us at all, and that's probably why we did it," Mikey Smithwick said in a 2002 interview with The Equiery, a Maryland equine publication based in Lisbon.

Mr. Smithwick won his first Maryland Hunt Cup in 1948, and repeated as winner in 1949, 1950, 1952, 1954 and finally in 1960, aboard Fluctuate. He was described in The Equiery article as having a "keen eye, cool head and razor-sharp instincts."

"Mikey considered all the variables, whether it was a dip in the ground or a low-hanging tree bough. He always had a plan, and saving ground was key," the article said.

Mr. Smithwick identified the sixth and 16th fences as the most difficult jumps on the course, which is one of the most taxing in the world.

"It was a challenge, those bigger fences; you've got to know what you're doing," he said in the interview. "If you had a horse that you knew well, and was well-schooled - and if you could coordinate everything - it was fun."

"I think he was the No. 1 American amateur steeplechase rider jumping over timber fences in the 20th century. He was very skilled, had no peers, and was one of America's finest horseman," said Peter Winants, a boyhood friend and author of Steeplechasing: A Complete History of the Sport in North America.

In his book, Mr. Winants described watching Mr. Smithwick on the course.

"To me, there was no greater thrill in racing than to see Mikey place a horse into the huge third fence in the Maryland Hunt Cup," he wrote.

Mr. Smithwick was 28 when he began training steeplechase horses and an occasional flat-track horse.

"Three of his steeplechase horses, Neji, Bon Nouvel and Jay Trump, are in racing's Hall of Fame. He worked for great owners and had an incredible career as a trainer," Mr. Winants said.

"What can you say about a legend?" Margaret H. Worrall, author of 100 Runnings of the Maryland Hunt Cup, said yesterday. "Every rider who followed him went to him for advice about the Maryland Hunt Cup, and he was so generous. He'd walk the course with them and watch old films. He had no agenda. He loved his horses, and he loved the sport of timber racing."

The brothers established and operated Smithwick Stables beginning in then early 1950s, but ended their successful partnership after Paddy Smithwick was paralyzed in a 1966 spill from a horse at Monmouth Park, N.J.

Mikey Smithwick especially enjoyed working with children, whom he trained while riding his favorite pony. He liked staging spur-of-the-moment horse shows or a quick race with his young students.

His working days began at 5 a.m. and often ended well after dark, and even though he was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy three years ago, he continued working.

"He ran one of his horses three weeks ago," said Alexandra S. White, a trainer with whom he had worked and lived for the last 24 years.

"If ever there was a horse whisperer, it was Mikey. He thought like a horse and could handle the most difficult of them, and that's what made him great at what he did," Miss White said. "He loved all animals, and they loved him."

Mr. Smithwick, whose horses had earned $3.2 million by 1983, was elected in 1971 as a steeplechase trainer to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. His brother was elected to the Hall of Fame a few months before his death in 1973.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. Monday at St. James Episcopal Church, 3100 Monkton Road, Monkton.

In addition to his companion, Mr. Smithwick is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, the former Dorothy Fred of Middleburg, Va.; two sons, Daniel Michael Smithwick Jr. of Louisville and Alfred Rogers Smithwick of Elkton; and two grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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