About Martin Smith Racing
Martin Smith Racing: Living for racing and daring to dream
Published May 14, 2015 | Course Specialist
In a sense Martin Smith’s life has come full circle. Born in Newmarket, the son of jockey Allan Smith, he is steeped in racing tradition and after a lifetime that has taken him and wife Michelle around the globe, he has settled back into Newmarket as one of the town’s bright up and coming training teams.
Martin Smith Racing is the culmination of years of collated knowledge from far flung corners of the globe and with the added ingredients of ambition and a hugely positive approach is increasingly coming to the attention of the racing world.
“I was born in Newmarket and dad was a jockey at the time. When I was three years old we moved to Belgium where dad continued to ride and eventually started training in 1981, so I grew up around horses,” he recalls.
“I got my first ride two months before my 15th birthday and rode on the Flat. I had 9 winners from about 100 runners during my time in Belgium,” Martin continues.
The budding apprentice was growing in size and in his late teens took the decision to move back to the UK where he joined the jumps yard of top trainer Nicky Henderson.
“I was with Nicky for a year and it was the season Travado won the Arkle (1993). I went back to Belgium for my 18th birthday and when I returned to England, I went to Josh Gifford’s stable where I shared a room with Leighton Aspell and acquired my Conditional Jockey’s Licence.
“He went on to ride two Grand National winners but I didn’t get too many rides, although at home I got to sit on some of the best jumpers I’ve known ( I also got to sit on Go Ballistic for John O’Shea), horses like Bradbury Star, Spuffington, Topsham Bay and Katabatic, although I never got to ride Deep Sensation.”
All the time Martin was subconsciously learning the skills that in time would serve him so well, although the realisation came as something of a surprise:
“One day we had some owners arrive at the stables and there was nobody else around to show them around the yard. I didn’t realise how much I had learned until showing them all 60 horses and afterwards they commented on my knowledge, how I knew the name of every horse and its form. It hadn’t dawned on me until then!”
However, despite his learning curve, the rides in Britain were not coming with any great regularity and ultimately led to Martin taking decisive action:
“I got about 27 rides in 5 years and rode a filly called September Breeze who finished second at Hereford. The next time she ran I was jocked-off in favour of Mick FitzGerald but he could only manage second on her too. So I was back on her the next time and she finished second once again at Towcester.
“At the age of 22 I decided to get out of racing altogether and I joined a band and became a real rebel!” he remembers.
But the allure of racing pulled Martin back once again and he eventually ended up in Bahrain, where his father was now training.
“I worked as his assistant for a couple of years and then moved back to the UK and joined Richard Hannon’s stable as Pupil Assistant from 2000 to 2002.”
That was a good time for the yard as horses like Cape Town and Redback performed with great credit – but more importantly, it was where Martin met his future wife Michelle.
Like her husband, Michelle grew up in the horseracing industry working alongside her parents for some of the biggest names in UK racing. Her father was head lad at Richard Hannon’s for 17 years so she brought a wealth of experience to the partnership.
Martin decided in 2002 to move out to Dubai and took Michelle with him. He worked there for two years and saw the inaugural 10-week Dubai Carnival.
“The quality of horses was amazing and my father trained horses like Aramram and the former Italian Derby winner Morshdi, along with a Group 1 winner of an Arabian race.
“I rode in amateur races while I was out there and competed with the likes of Sheikh Rashid. In my second season out there, I rode a horse called Mr Spa who I won three races on. That season in six rides I had four winners a second and a third.”
Around this time Martin also furthered his learning as he became appointed Clerk of the Course at Jebel Ali from 2002 to 2004.
“I was just told one day that I was the Clerk of the Course and it was a great experience. We carried out a lot of upgrades to the track and saw five track records broken during my time there.
“I was like a fish out of water but I believe it is good to push yourself out of your comfort zone at times and I am very proud of my time there,” he reflects.
From Dubai Martin and Michelle found their way to Florida where they started training for nine months out of Ocala; again it was an interesting learning experience:
“I saw a number of things that could be administered to horses during my time there and it was interesting to learn of treatments and vitamins, although some of these would not be permitted over here,” says Martin.
“But throughout my travels I have worked with trainers and not always agreed with what they have done. My time in America was a big eye opener though.”
After nine months the Smiths returned to the UK armed with a wealth of experience and fully prepared as horsemen and women to train race horses. However, as Martin explains, it was not as simple as that:
“It took us three weeks to pick up a licence in Florida but eight years to do so in England.
“The system over here is simply not set up to help horsemen start training. It is not designed to encourage new trainers and entrepreneurism.”
In the meantime, Martin spent time working with John Best and with the trainer overseas, he was privileged to be the man on hand when the top class sprinter Kingsgate Native won the 2007 Nunthorpe Stakes at York as a two year old.
Whilst the couple worked hard to acquire a training licence in Britain, they set up a new business called Equi-Ping, selling a revolutionary safety release for tying horses up to.
The concept for Equi-Ping came to Martin during many hours spent in the saddle walking racehorses to and from the gallops in between their work exercise. For years he and Michelle knew that there must be a safer and better way to securely tie horses up rather than using baling twine and Martin had experienced the sad demise of former Bahrain Derby winner El Supremo, who was found hanging off the wall dead when his groom had tacked him up and moved away for just a couple of minutes.
Equi-Ping (www.safetyrelease.co.uk) is manufactured in Dartford and was launched back in 2011 winning a prestigious highly commended award for innovation from BETA the UK’s leading equestrian trade show. The judges said “we liked the way that the tension could be varied and the fact that it could be reused. This is a small device that could have a big impact on safety and security when tying up horses and ponies.”
“The take up was phenomenal and we launched at an NEC Trade Fair and immediately received orders from 15 different countries,” Martin states.
With Equi-Ping proving a popular success, the Smiths finally received the news they had hoped for as Martin was granted a trainer’s licence.
That momentous news brought Martin back to Newmarket after so many years away and he feels the decision to set-up there was perfect:
“Newmarket is like nowhere else on earth; I just love it!” he exclaims. “You have everything you need in Newmarket to set up a small training business and to not have to worry is such a relief and has helped us to become successful.
“It was nice to come back home but whilst it is easy to think that Newmarket is the only place that does things properly, that is not strictly so. It was the same in Belgium and whilst the quality might have been not so high, there were a lot of top class English work riders who found their way over there in the early 80s. Dubai and America were places where I saw things that really opened my eyes.
“But Newmarket I just think is the ideal place for a trainer starting out. It costs a lot of money to establish your own gallops and there is a real saving being based here.
“One of the biggest things I have learned being in Newmarket is the benefit of routine. There are so many gallops that it is easy to get caught up and you need a set routine in order to understand the gallops and how fit your horses are. That is harder to do if you keep changing gallops. The horses also feel more comfortable when they have a set routine so I always say “Keep it simple”.
“I am sure if Sir Henry Cecil was still with us he would say that he was still learning every day. The gallops surfaces get old and need to be resurfaced and you have to adapt every day.”
Martin says that Equi-Ping gave him a new sense of business acumen, which certainly helped as he launched Martin Smith Racing. It also provided a welcome source of revenue stream which meant that Martin and Michelle did not need to take a salary when establishing their training set-up.
“Our main challenge commercially has not been getting the horses in good condition – that comes as second nature to Michelle and I; it has been attracting clients and getting business in.
“In the past 12 months you can see a change in people’s attitudes and the people we attract absolutely love going racing, have a good time and love the horses. We make racing affordable and they appreciate that for a couple of hundred pounds they could be standing in the paddock chatting with the jockey and really be a part of the experience.
“We have been very fortunate to attract really good owners and everyone pays on time which I know within the industry can be a bit of a rarity.
“The reason you have seen trainers go out of business has often been because they have been owed mon and of course as a trainer you still have to feed the horses and pay your staff. We are very careful and choose the right people to work for.”
With Martin Smith Racing now in its third year, Martin and Michelle moved to Liberty Stables on the Hamilton Road and a lovely new purpose built indoor barn.
Martin’s first winner came in late November 2013, when a 4 year old called Boris The Bold landed a Kempton Park “Hands and Heels” Apprentice Handicap. Afterwards Martin admits they celebrated “lavishly!” and the victory was all the more pertinent as Boris The Bold was part-owned by Michelle and Martin’s mother, meaning he raced in colours very similar to Mr Spa all those years earlier.
The most high profile of Martin’s horse at that time was Hillbilly Boy, a 5 year old gelded son of Guineas winner Haafhd, who along with another stable star No Refund, ran in the familiar silks of Macguire’s Bloodstock Ltd, who in the past owned Hennessy Gold Cup winner Strands Of Gold.
“I was approached by Keith Macguire who wanted to buy a horse and we had been looking at a number of claimers and sellers at Lingfield Park but on the day had not been impressed with the horses we saw.
“But for Hillybilly Boy’s seller (in January 2014) we had looked at his form and whilst he was a little small, I couldn’t believe he was in a seller He started at 14/1 and of course he won and we bought him.”
From that lowly seller Hillybilly Boy made a steep ascent up the racing ranks last year, placing three times and winning three more races before making a high profile appearance in the Buckingham Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot which brought him extensive television coverage to a wider racing audience.
But what did Martin do to bring such improvement from Hillybilly Boy?
“The difference is the environment and he is a horse that has come of age. Lots of people don’t see just how well people can connect with horses. One of the things I have learned in business with people is that they respond positively when you give them confidence and lay off putting pressure on them. We adopt the same principles with horses.
“We were looking for a 3 or 4 year old horse with his best days still in front of him and we found Hillbilly Boy. We just kept him fresh and happy and he thrived.”
Whilst Martin is delighted to train horses for individual owners, he has also enjoyed success through the racing syndicate Little Princess Racing (www.littleprincessracing.com) which actually started up before Martin Smith Racing.
Little Princess Racing is a fun and economical way to become connected with racing but the story of how the syndicate came to fruition is one that underlines an emotive topic, as Martin explains:
“In 2012 we were given an abandoned horse named Princess Alessia. Alessia had ran a few times and had shown potential and we decided to put her into training and got one or two people involved as investors. This was the start of Little Princess Racing.
“After Newmarket Open Day in September 2012 and various tweets on Twitter, Little Princess Racing became quite popular as did Alessia, as she was a very loving and kind little horse. She loved attention and people fell in love with her when they came to visit, making them keen to get into her syndicate.
“Alessia was due to run in the middle of December 2012 – she was working very well at home and was very bright and happy in herself. A champagne breakfast was arranged for the 15th of December for current and potential members of LPR to be able to come to the yard, meet Alessia and see her do her last piece of work before her race, followed by the champagne breakfast at the local pub.
“On the 11th of December, Alessia went down with a serious case of colic. Despite everyone’s best efforts she sadly could not be saved – it was a very sad day for everyone involved.
“Princess Alessia is the reason Little Princess Racing is what it is today, without her it would have never existed – for that and many other reasons, she will never be forgotten.
“Michelle and I had another horse at home called Batgirl and we put her into training with Terry Clement and transferred the shares into her and she ran well enough to place second at Epsom and third at Yarmouth.
“Then along came Notebook and Littlemisspositive and things grew from there. Little Princess Racing is very popular and we provide racehorse ownership that is fun and affordable, we have different levels of ownership from a 2% share to 50% or more.
“All our members are welcome to visit the yard along with regular open days.
“We are a fun and friendly syndicate who strive to do the very best by our horses and to have a bit of fun and success along the way.”
But the story of Princess Alessia also underlines the importance of responsible re-homing once a racehorse has finished racing – a subject Martin and Michelle take great care with, following up with future owners of retired horses.
The syndicate model is a win-win as it brings new people to the Sport of Kings but also offers the trainer an air of security. The impact of one major owner taking their horses from a yard or failing to pay the bills can be catastrophic; whereas syndicates offer safety in numbers and the syndicate won’t collapse if one person leaves.
The fun side of the syndicate is of course that it offers greater contact and interaction with owners and the yard. Social media has very much embellished that potential and is a platform Martin has taken great advantage of:
“Social media accounts for roughly 80% of my marketing and has attracted 80% of my owners,” he states. “As we become more established I am sure there will be more word of mouth but when we started out no-one knew who we were. We had seven horses at the start and I had time on my hands and took to Twitter and Facebook and it worked very well.
“Whilst I was still learning about business, I had to learn about marketing too.”
Perhaps inevitably Martin cites his father as his greatest influence “I wanted to be a pilot as a boy, apart from also wanting to be Luke Skywalker! My dad kept me interested in racing and taught me so much, even when I was disinterested,” he says.
“I have received so much good advice down the years but the one thing I always remember is actually a line from the song ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ that goes: “The dreams that you dare to dream really do come true”.
“My ultimate goal is to win a Breeders’ Cup or Melbourne Cup – and then a Dubai World Cup and perhaps a Derby.
“I love the big global racing events and grew up watching Phar Lap so I have a special affinity with the Melbourne Cup,” Martin enthuses.
The open and hugely positive approach to racing has brought Martin and Michelle Smith into the national racing psyche in little more than a year. Martin’s policy to make time for people is refreshing and he is always happy to discuss opportunities suggesting the best way to reach him is by text message.
People say the nicest things…
"I can see Martin Smith Racing going a long way in 5 years, you only have to look what it's achieved in the first couple of years, and with more support from new and existing owners, the sky's the limit!"
"There is no doubt that Martin and Michelle are talented race horse trainers who are a pleasure to be involved with. I imagine that over the coming years the stable will grow in size and quality as they raise their profile. Building on their early success, whilst retaining the personal approach that has served them so well to date."