AN interview with trainer Matthew Smith is always an education.
Smith would make a good schoolteacher if he wasn’t such an outstanding racehorse trainer.
He’s a deep thinker, passionate about the sport, appreciates the thoroughbred but challenges convention.
Grey Lion is a case in point. The nine-year-old stayer who was bred in Ireland and began his race career in France, has had leg problems during his career but has never been sounder than this spring campaign.
Smith has Grey Lion racing in winning form and a chance to record another big-race success in the Listed $140,000 Clubs NSW City Tattersalls Club Cup (2400m) at Royal Randwick on Saturday.
“Grey Lion is going super, he has come back this preparation in great order,’’ Smith said.
“(Owners) Terry Henderson and OTI are very patient and just let you train which is massive with older horses like Grey Lion as they can be perfect one day and not quite so good the next.
“He’s a beautiful horse to deal with but he’s not the easiest horse to train. He’s a big horse for a stayer, about 550kg, and once you get him fit then you just find a happy spot and keep him ticking over.
“His best form is his fresh form but I can’t find a reason not to run him.’’
Smith doesn’t like giving Grey Lion long spells because the gelding takes so long to regain race fitness.
Kathy O’Hara rides Grey Lion to victory at Randwick. AAP/Simon BullardSource:AAP
In fact, the Warwick Farm-based trainer can see a fundamental change in Australian racing where racehorses are not immediately turned out for lengthy spells at the end of a race preparation.
“The reality is horses are better off doing something rather than just standing around in a spelling paddock,’’ Smith said.
“When you bring them back into work after a spell that is when 90% of injuries occur.
“If you can give them a freshen up but maintain their fitness base, maintain their muscle and movement, you are ahead of the pack because they can be trialling again in two or three weeks.
“When you put them in the spelling paddock for a month or so then it’s about eight weeks until they are ready to trial again.’’
Smith, who spent time working with Irish training genius Aidan O’Brien at famous Ballydoyle, said it would not surprise if more Australian trainers adopted the northern hemisphere method where racehorses are kept in work 12 months of the year.
“When it gets really cold in the northern hemisphere winter, the horses don’t spell, they stay in work and do mainly jogging and cantering exercise,’’ Smith said.
“I think there is a happy medium between spelling them and keeping them in work.’’
By coincidence, Smith, trainer of Fierce Impact, is trying to beat his old boss, O’Brien, who has Magic Wand and Armory contesting the Group 1 $5 million Cox Plate (2040m) at Moonee Valley on Saturday.
Fierce Impact was bred in Japan and began his race career in England before being purchased by a syndicate of Smith’s clients and transferred to the trainer’s Warwick Farm stables about two years ago.
The son of Japanese superhorse Deep Impact has realized his potential under Smith, winning five races including three at Group 1 level – Toorak Handicap, Cantala Stakes and Makybe Diva Stakes – to take his career earnings to more than $3.2 million.
“At the start of his ‘prep’ we said the plan was to go to the Cox Plate,’’ Smith said. “It doesn’t always happen that way so it’s great to get this horse to the race.
“I can’t fault him, either. It’s not easy having to train him from Sydney, I’d prefer to be there to keep an eye on him but I’ve got great staff in Melbourne and the horse is thriving.
“He went to Moonee Valley on Tuesday morning where he went a ‘mile home two’. Luke (Currie, jockey) had his first sit on him and said the horse felt great.’’
“Fierce Impact’s ready to run the race of his life.’’
Smith has had considerable success with imported gallopers in recent years including the likes of Fierce Impact, Grey Lion, Attorney and Ilwendo.
Matthew Smith with Fierce Impact after the Toorak Handicap win. Photo: AAP Image/Vince CaligiuriSource:AAP
The trainer admitted his time working as O’Brien’s assistant trainer in Ireland has helped him understand how to prepare the imported horses.
“But I also think it’s just the experience of training for 15 years,’’ he continued.
“You get better at your job and identify things quicker. I think you become more observant and in tune with what is going on with your horses.
“Then as you get more confident in your own ability you go more with your gut instinct.’’
In keeping with this theme, Smith recently purchased Luskin Park Stud, a picturesque stud property near Luskintyre.
This was a strategic acquisition, a realisation of a long-held ambition that is part of the evolution of Smith’s training business and strategies.
“I feel having our own place where we can manage the horses, pre-train them and prepare them will be an advantage,’’ Smith said.
“Because of all the European horses we are getting, I’m looking to put in a training track on the property to cater for them and help them acclimatize quicker.
“Also, it gives us an option to take horses from our Warwick Farm stables and give them a change of environment.
“This is something I have wanted to do ever since I started training. If you have different options when training horses, it can be the key to success.’’
Smith had his best-ever season in 2019-20, training 60 winners on all tracks for prizemoney of $4 million – all from his Warwick Farm stables.
But Smith conceded not every horse is suited to being trained on a metropolitan track like Warwick Farm.
“The next biggest issue after soundness for the thoroughbred is airway disease,’’ Smith said.
“A horse produces saliva and mucus to protect their lungs but when they are in a dusty, environmentally unfriendly area, they produce more mucus which means you can get some horses that don’t scope perfectly.
“Again, these are the types of horses that you want to give the opportunity to be breathing fresh air up on the farm which is what we will be able to do.
“Some horses are chronic, almost like asthmatics, so they are better off at the farm where they get plenty of fresh air.’’
Smith said finding the right environment to keep his horses sound and healthy also reduces the reliance on medication.
It was a revealing conversation but time was my enemy. Smith had some pressing matters to attend to. The lesson was over.
Originally published asSmith passing the test with Grey Lion
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