Trainer Lindsey Smith celebrated a rare interstate feature race double last Saturday when his seven-year-old stablemates, Scales of Justice and Great Again, took out the $1,000,000 Group 1 Memsie Stakes at Caulfield and $100,000 Listed Idyllic Prince Stakes at Belmont respectively.
The multiple Group 1-winning horseman has polarised the media and general racing fraternity across the nation for more than two decades, with his witty humour and exuberant personality capturing the attention of punters whenever he is interviewed.
However, whilst the likable larrikin is widely-considered among Australia’s most astute trainers, his career hails from humble beginnings and his rise is very much a story of rags to riches.
From not having enough money to buy a horse float during his early battles, to operating two highly-successful stables on opposite sides of the country, the recently-turned 60-year-old and father of five has had to work his way to the top.
Born in Williamstown, Victoria, Smith’s non-racing parents moved the family to Western Australia when he was a baby and he grew up in Palmyra, 20 kilometres south-west of Perth.
The middle child of seven siblings, he attended John Curtin High School briefly before transferring to Kwinana High School, where he also only stayed for a short period.
“When I was at John Curtin High School, there used to be a couple of trotters across the road and I liked the smell of the horses,” Smith said.
“My brother just started playing around with horses, he worked for Colin France, so I used to get a lift there from my sister or catch the bus on the weekend.
“I went to Kwinana High School from his house and then I left school and was apprenticed to Colin France in Rockingham.”
Smith was an apprentice jockey by the age of 14 and, despite leaving within the space of just two years, he knew he wanted to remain working with horses.
Ever the entertainer, he says he likes to put a different spin on why his riding career came to an end.
“I tell people it was weight, but my mates know it was ability,” he said.
“To people who don’t know me, I say weight, but those who know me know the reason.
“I rode for a couple years with no success and my brother went to work for a chap in Melbourne called Tommy Hughes.
“A couple years later I followed and started to work for Tommy Hughes.”
Smith worked for Hughes for the best part of five years before taking up an opportunity to become stable foreman for legendary Queensland trainer, Henry Davis, who was regarded as being one of the country’s best conditioners with the unique ability to be able to set a horse for a betting plunge.
Smith would remain under Davis’ tutelage for a few years before deciding to try his hand at training racehorses himself and relocated to his home state with his now-wife, Rebecca.
“In Melbourne, when you got your licence you had to start off in Mornington and wherever, so I decided to come home,” he said.
“I struggled for a number of years.
“Then I went to the gym and lost a lot of weight and learnt about aerobic and anaerobic training and how I could get them fit in the heavy sand.
“It was more that I had to adapt to the environment I had, because I didn’t even have enough money for a horse float and I couldn’t take them anywhere.”
While Smith was learning the tools of his trade, a new friendship resulted in him joining forces with leading harness trainer-driver, Justin Warwick, the son of pacing legend, Trevor.
Since switching codes in 2011, Warwick is now a dual Perth Cup and multiple stakes-winning thoroughbred trainer in his own right, however, he and Smith forged their paths to success when training alongside each other in the 1990s.
“I met Justin when I was at the gym,” Smith said.
“Between us, we had a couple of trotters and a couple of gallopers and we pitched in to buy a tractor so we could grade the track.
“We had a lot of success with the trotters and the gallopers.
“Back in those days you couldn’t do partnerships, so I had the gallopers in my name and he had the trotters.
“The trotters were winning that much that they pretty much took over because, at the time, they were winning four or five races on one night.”
As more money started to come in, Smith purchased a tried galloper from a dispersal sale that was formerly owned-and-bred by WA breeding icon, Bob Peters.
The horse, an Old Spice entire named Old Cobber, would go on to win six races in a row for Smith, as well as claiming two Group 2 Cox Stakes’, a Group 3 Winter Cup and a Listed ATA Stakes.
At the time, however, Smith was unaware that Old Cobber’s success would soon open up doors for him that would pave the way for a meteoric rise in the following years.
“I had Old Cobber and Bob Peters’ trainer copped a suspension, so Bob asked me if I wanted some horses,” he said.
“He gave me four and they were the slowest horses I had.
“I rang him up and told him I didn’t think they were much good, so he said to send them home.
“Two days later he sent me 12 more.
“Without his input to me, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Smith and Peters enjoyed a huge run of feature race success over the coming years, including defeating WA champion Northerly in the 2002 Group 1 Australian Cup at Flemington.
The relationship that had set Smith on the road to greatness and the one he still considers the biggest influence on his career, however, would soon come to end.
“It was good to get some nice horses because they set me on a path and taught me how to train,” he said.
“Bob just said to me one day that we’d ran out of luck.
“I didn’t want him to go, but he made a decision on what he felt was right.
“We still talk, I don’t know if we’re mates, but I’m definitely his mate.
“Whether that’s reciprocal, I don’t know, but we had a good relationship and I admire what the bloke’s done.”
In a somewhat-ironic twist, Peters’ current WA trainers, husband-wife team Grant and Alana Williams and the state’s leading trainer Adam Durrant, all spent time working for Smith in years gone by.
The comical Smith summarises the impressive progression of his former staff-members beautifully.
“Justin and I used to say that we were selling guns to the enemy,” he quipped.
“Bob’s clever enough to know that the system works.
“They deserve all of their success and they’re great horsemen in their own right.”
Despite being a prominent metropolitan stable for 20 years, however, Smith concedes his business was on the verge of collapse earlier this decade.
He credits the assistance from a well-regarded bloodstock agent as being instrumental to his revival.
“I was going to go broke,” Smith said.
“I’d been broke a couple of times before and I knew the smell of it.
“I had about 36 in work and I went down to 10.
“Then I formed a relationship with Craig Rounsefell from Boomer Bloodstock and we started buying better-quality horses.
“We were able to get Scales of Justice, but there’s been numerous winners that he’s helped us purchase over the last six or seven years.
“It’s a system that we go through and he looks at every horse at every sale.”
Although Smith’s WA stable numbers have increased to around 26 horses in work at his Casuarina property, he still maintains one of the best winning strike-rates in the state.
He says part of building a bigger team comes off the back of learning from some of his previous mistakes.
“Once upon a time I didn’t keep a horse that only had one or two wins in it, but I found that when the horse won that race with another trainer, the owner would never come back,” he said.
“So now I spend a bit more time and make sure I win those one or two races with that horse, so the owner stays in my environment and hopefully gets a share in a faster one next time.
“I’m a little bit more patient these days and I have some of the best owners you could ever have.”
Scales of Justice, now a two-time Group 1 winner who has accumulated $2,183,550 in stake earnings to date, has had a cult-like following in WA since taking out the Group 1 Railway Stakes in 2016.
The horse affectionately known as “Chopper” already held a special place in Smith’s heart, however, continual soundness issues over the past 12 months meant even Smith had all but lost hope of the gelding ever racing again.
“I still think Old Comrade was the best horse I’ve trained, but as an animal and whether he could run or not, Chopper has a real character,” he said.
“I had the white towel in my hand earlier this year and I was ready to throw it in.
“I’d given up and it wasn’t until I sent him to Andrews Cust at Ballarat and they had a fresh look at him.
“They had all the machinery there and all different ideas, I think there were six or seven vets there.
“He had about three or four different ailments and they just tried to block one out at a time.
“I know his Bletchingly Stakes win (first-up) wasn’t a Group 1, but I’m not a breeder so it’s just a horse race in a sense to me, and I got a great thrill out of that.
“I was quite emotional.”
Smith’s most recent Victorian Group 1 victory is said to have justified his expansion to Warrnambool earlier this year after having considered the move for the past two years.
After stabling with Australia’s former leading trainer, Darren Weir, briefly in 2017, he says he was impressed by the operation and jumped at the chance to apply for the stable’s vacated boxes following Weir’s disqualification earlier this year.
“The only reason I’m in Warrnambool is because when I sent Scales of Justice over here, I thought I’d go and learn from the best to see if I was missing out on anything and try to learn something,” Smith said.
“I came here and saw how it works, and when it all went pear-shaped for Darren Weir, I thought it was an opportunity to see if I could apply for the boxes.
“It was a gamble, but I’d been here before and they had all the facilities and the beach, so I had nothing to lose.
“My staff are world-class.
“I saw how it happened at Weirs, so I’ve tried to be surrounded by the best people in my own way.”
Smith has said from the outset that his Melbourne venture will be a 12-month trial before assessing whether he extends his stay and, despite his recent success, he maintains that is still the case.
It appears that, in this case at least, home really is where the heart is.
“I miss my family,” he said.
“Even though it’s like a fly-in, fly-out worker, it’s still not the same as waking up in your own bed next to your wife.
“I wouldn’t be here without Rebecca, she’s certainly a Group 1 girl.
“The family could come over here, but the kids are either starting high school or two years in and they have their friends, so this system can work as long as I can put up with it.
“But it’s a beautiful part of the world, Warrnambool so it’s not like I’m in jail!”