Riding It Out
Writing About His Famous Jockey Father Got Patrick Smithwick Back Into Horse Racing In His 50s
Patrick Smithwick still has his father’s saddle. It’s a feather-light slab of caramel-colored leather, barely recognizable from years of hard use. He’s got Pop’s “cheatin’ boots,” too, thin footwear worn to “make weight” and ride in the steeplechase races held at Pimlico, Belmont, and other famous tracks during the 1950s and ’60s.
“If you ride in your father’s saddle, it’s an important thing,” says Smithwick, gently replacing the worn bit of leather on a shelf in his cowshed-turned-writing studio. “It’s not some plastic thing you throw away.”
As the only son and lone apprentice of National Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame steeplechase jockey A.P. “Paddy” Smithwick, the man once known as “Little Paddy” was his father’s nigh-constant companion. He spent his childhood learning to gallop 1,300-pound thoroughbred horses at breakneck speeds over brush and timber fences, slamming down shots of alcohol at turfside bars, and watching his father hobnob with the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy and Eddie Arcaro in winner’s circles and jockey’s rooms all along the East Coast. Dubbed “the Master” by newspapers, the elder Smithwick led the country in steeplechase wins four times, enchanting bettors with his gentlemanly Irish-American demeanor, and overcoming fall-induced paralysis to train and ride horses until lung cancer claimed his life in 1973. He was only 46.
Today, after a few decades spent raising his two sons and daughter, the Master’s son is paying tribute to his late father’s memory in several ways. A few years ago, Smithwick moved to the 18th-century Monkton homestead at My Lady’s Manor where he was raised, christened “Prospect Farm” by his father. Soon after that, a young racehorse moved into the barn, just a thin wall away from his writing room. And a small horse-oriented press, Eclipse Books, is about to publish Racing My Father, a moving firsthand account of what it’s like to grow up in Maryland’s horse country and apprentice to one of steeplechasing’s all-time greats. The book—Smithwick’s first, apart from commissioned histories for Union Memorial Hospital and Gilman School—was a long time coming.
“I’ve been thinking about writing it for more than 20 years,” says Smithwick, sitting at his writing desk while Warfield, one of his three horses, mills around in the pasture outside, just beneath the tree where he built his childhood fort. “The first magazine piece I ever published was based on the whole first part of the book, Pop’s fall. I wrote it as a short story in college. Through the years, I’ve written bits and pieces. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, in between writing all these other pieces for magazines and teaching, to keep making money. But I’ve been a student of the memoir for many years.”
An affable, welcoming man who seems, at first, too tall and lanky to be a jockey, Smithwick possesses the aura of quiet decisiveness seen in most horsemen. Trained in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and Roanoke, Va.’s Hollins University, and steeped in nonfiction writing through years of freelancing for Style, Baltimore, Warfield’s, and other magazines, Smithwick is every bit as passionate about writing as he is about steeplechasing. Despite its confrontational-sounding title, Racing My Father is not about growing up overshadowed by a riding legend. It’s about flourishing in the light of a parent’s legacy and becoming an expert at a sport that one has to experience in order to learn—a spirit of ancestral tradition that Smithwick thinks is lacking today, even in the heart of Maryland horse country.
“There’s a great sort of feeling of history, and serving an apprenticeship with one’s father,” he says. “For centuries, people had been brought up like that, whether in farming, or in trades, or actually pretty much up until the industrial revolution. Parents handed down things to their children, and that’s kind of been obliterated. I wanted to show that in the book, this continuity that doesn’t exist anymore, of the father and this sort of apprenticeship, handing down his love and passion for something to his son. We had one horse, Crag—my father used to ride him, and then I was riding him. And his stall was right there, on the other side of the wall. I don’t think you have anything like that in the 21st century. I wanted to show that sense of sacredness.”
A self-confessed proponent of “the cow-prod theory of writing”—a just do it mentality inspired by a morning when the senior Smithwick jokingly shocked him out of bed with a cattle prod—Smithwick finally buckled down to write his memoir after moving back to Prospect Farm following his mother’s death. The place is rich with memories—his very first pony, Nappie, lies buried under a tree in the yard, and he’s quick to point out the window where he used to sit, waiting to hear his father’s car rumble down the crusher-run driveway.
“When we first moved back here, all I did was work on this place day and night, 5:30 in the morning until 10 at night, and I’ve never been so tired in my life,” Smithwick remembers. “We had a cold winter, and I was here for about 10 or 12 days by myself, while my family was down in Florida. That’s when I really started to think about the book again, and think of these things.”
Memories, present in every bale of hay hurled out of the loft and every leisurely afternoon spent riding through the countryside, spurred Smithwick to revisit the idea of writing a memoir—and with his kids grown, the horseman began joining his friend and fellow former steeplechaser Tom Voss on fox-hunting rides, exercising two future Maryland Hunt Cup starters, Welter Weight and Florida Law.
“That was kind of fun, because we had some really good hunting on Saturdays, and that starts getting you pretty fit and leads into the steeplechase races,” Smithwick says. “Most of the time, I was on one horse and Tom was on the other, and it was like being on two Maseratis or something.”
Soon after, Smithwick started riding both horses in a few steeplechase races, getting back in shape by galloping additional horses at the tracks and hunt clubs that he and his father both knew so well, helping trainers keep their charges fit for racing season.
“I turned 47 and a half, and I was up at Saratoga Springs galloping horses,” he says. “And galloping, all the kids are 20, 25 years old. I was thinking, I don’t know if I can still do this, I’m sweating a lot more than that guy. But then it started feeling pretty good. I was galloping three or four [horses] a day. And when I went back to riding races, it brought back all the memories and everything, and that was the catalyst that made this book happen.”
These days, Smithwick divides his time between promoting Racing My Father and training Riderwood, a 7-year-old novice steeplechase horse. Originally meant to be a pleasure horse for Smithwick’s wife and kids, Riderwood deftly tricked his master back into the steeplechase game—and into writing a second memoir, tentatively titled Racing Through the Midlife Crisis. Riderwood has placed second in all of his starts thus far, all with Smithwick in the saddle. In addition to borrowing Pop’s “cheatin’ boots” on occasion, the son maintains a strict diet and exercise plan to make weight, as opposed to the senior Smithwick’s usual prescription—sweating sessions in layers of clothing and “hot cars,” and a steak and salad for dinner every night.
“I actually went and bought Riderwood one day and didn’t tell my wife,” laughs Smithwick, currently 10 to 15 pounds underweight for race season. “I got him to be a sleepy hunter for her and the kids to ride. And at first they could. Now, they wouldn’t be able to. I was riding him one day, and he spooked at something. And then another time he took a little bite out of me. I said, ‘You son of a bitch, what is this?’ So I started hunting him, and he started feeling better and better, so last spring I rode him in this flat race, just for fun. He’s a real quiet, sleepy kind of horse, and I was thinking, What am I doing? But then he almost won that race. I asked him to run at the end and he was flying. So then I thought, Well, maybe I’ll run him in a few more races.”
While talking about his rejuvenated racing career, Smithwick excitedly roots around in briefcases for race programs and DVDs of Riderwood’s latest starts, mostly three-mile races over timber fences. It’s plain to see that the soft-spoken writer is still just as enamored with steeplechasing as the eager teenager he describes in Racing My Father.
At 55, he’s one of the eldest riders on the course, often riding against the sons of men he rode with in his 20s. Smithwick readily admits that it’s fairly rare for a man of his age to be careening headlong over fences at 40 miles per hour. But listening to him describe exercising his horse, on the tract of land where he first experienced the euphoria of galloping full-tilt, you get the feeling that his father would be damn proud.
“I gallop Riderwood on the hunter trial course over the hill, and I think about my father when I’m there, because we used to bring the racehorses over there and gallop them, that sort of thing,” he says. “One time Riderwood and I were over at the hunter trial course and all the stars were out. The moon wasn’t out, so it wasn’t that kind of brightness, I couldn’t gallop him, but we trotted and trotted, and it was so beautiful. It was sort of like we were floating through the dark.”
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