Worlds apart, but two trainers shared rare horse sense

'The greatest horseman of the 20th century'' is the explanation under the statue in the village of Rosegreen not far from Ballydoyle, the stable of champions, in Ireland. It describes Vincent O'Brien, who is a top contender for the title, but what about our own Tommy Smith?

Sure, the guidelines are important and, no doubt, the international aspects, like the Washington International (Sir Ivor) and Breeders' Cup Mile (Royal Academy), of O'Brien weigh heavily in his favour. Three Grand Nationals at Aintree, too, make for worthwhile credentials. However the travelling of horses, more demanding in Smith's heyday, as well as prizemoney concerns abroad confined him, to some, as a local champion.

Also, how can Smith be declared superior to Bart Cummings? The late Bill Whittaker, an astute turf historian, listed his Australian top 10 as the following: 1. Tommy Smith, 2. Bart Cummings, 3. Jack Holt, 4. Tom Payten, 5. Walter Hickenbotham, 6. Lou Robertson, 7. James Scobie, 8. Frank McGrath, 9. Colin Hayes and 10. Richard Wootton, who left his mark in Britain.

Like O'Brien, it is a matter of style. Cummings is depicted as The Master, moulding and refining a thoroughbred for a target such as the Melbourne Cup, while Smith was The General, with every race being a battle from which he wanted to triumph like Napoleon.

Of O'Brien, his son-in-law John Magnier, who, with the trainer and Robert Sangster founded the Coolmore empire, commented: "He had no interest at all in winning titles or championships. MV knew how to get out quick when a horse was no longer a good prospect for him."

Born in County Cork in 1917 and dying in 2009, O'Brien accumulated 1529 winners on the flat and in National Hunt races in Ireland, taking 13 local premierships. He notched two for the National Hunt and flat in England.

When he was in Britain for three years in the 1960s the opposition there wasn't as testing as Smith faced in Sydney, where he won a world record 33 straight titles and one later. During this period he had 279 group 1 winners.

Cummings beat him by two hours to become the first trainer to win $1 million in prizemoney (1974) in Australia, but Smith was the first to win $2 million (1980) and $3 million (1985). By the 1990s Smith had trained more than 4000 winners, according to Jack Pollard's Australian Racing.

Smith would have backed himself to beat O'Brien in the dapper stakes but again it was a matter of style. O'Brien had his own shoe polisher. Smith had wife Valerie, and his racing plates shone like his smile.

Regarded as coming from "humble beginnings in County Cork", according to his biography, O'Brien was landed gentry compared to Smith.

O'Brien's first winner is listed as Oversway at Limerick Junction in 1943 but he had pulled off a coup the previous year. "One morning I rode White Squirrel [trained by his father, Dan] myself," he related in Vincent O'Brien, the authorised biography, by Jacqueline O'Brien and Ivor Herbert. ''I was very surprised at how well she went. I thought this is rather good. We'll have a little gamble on this mare. Our father enjoyed small wagers. He was very outgoing and it gave him the greatest pleasure to tell his friends his horses had a chance. I didn't say anything to my father then because he'd get quite excited and pass the news all round and the price would be gone. If it worked out I'd tell him at the right moment …"

O'Brien prepared the mare, grooming and riding her until the day of the gamble at Clonmel. "I got a good friend come to the races with us," he related." I told him 'Just before betting begins on the race go to my father and tell him he ought to have a bet on this mare.' My father gave him a tenner and he got 20/1. There was a scramble after that …"

About the same time Smith was in dire straits Ireland was having foot and mouth problems, rumoured to have been introduced by Germans, but Smith grew up with them. Smith was born at Jembaicumbene, near Braidwood, and later moved to Goolgowi on the south-west plains of NSW.

Before he left home at 13, Smith carted water, broke in horses, delivered the mail on horseback and ran bets for the local SP bookmaker. To survive his family trapped rabbits, eating the meat and selling the fur.

While O'Brien was have a comfortable time with White Squirrel, Smith was trying to tame Bragger, by Windbag. Bragger was a scorned buck jumper. To tame him Smith had to run him into a stockyard and throw a rope over his head, exhausting work. He finally got Bragger to accept the saddle but he was always a handful.

In 1942, after three earlier starts, he won a Rosehill race and Smith was on his way. By the end of his distinguished career O'Brien received the honorary degrees of Doctor of Laws (LLD honoris causa) from the National University of Ireland and Doctor of Science (DSc honoris causa) from the University of Ulster, and was referred to as Dr O'Brien.

Smith, AM, MBE, graduated from the bar at the Doncaster, the major hall of learning in the area before the University of NSW was built on Kensington racecourse. He majored in elocution and survival. He's remembered as "Two Bob Tommy", perhaps the greatest, and his statue is on Randwick racecourse.

This story Worlds apart, but two trainers shared rare horse sense first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.