If this was a tale about the old west, Michael Somerset Smith would have been one the guys wearing a white Stetson. You know -- the one the good guys wore in westerns.
Simply put, Mike loved horses, and as a youth he spent as much time as he could at Max Graham's Sunshine Riding Academy on Saskatchewan Avenue. As an aside, Max passed in June 2014, and his daughter, Debbie Buffalo, wife of Downs' trainer Marvin, owns and operates the popular Graham's Pony Rides. I mention this tidbit to give you an idea of just how closely integrated folks are at the Downs.
Mike met cute little Brenda Kilburn in the mid '60s on a blind date and the two became inseparable. They married in 1968. Children Tracy, Randy and Christie followed. Together the newly married pair established Somerset Farm located 19 miles northeast of the Downs. The Smiths built Somerset Farm in the middle of what use to be a wheat field. It started with the house and a small barn and grew to become a thriving horse operation!
In the early years Mike's job at Simpson Sears paid the bills, but he knew he didn't want to spend his life working for someone else, so the couple poured their savings into the farm. For the first few years, they were in the PMU (pregnant mare urine) business, which morphed into the breeding, training and boarding of thoroughbreds. In addition to getting the farm up and running, Mike was a valet at the Downs and eventually got into training race horses full time in 1977.
Mike's first winner as a trainer at the Downs came on August 26, 1977. Joe Russo's Damion won the third race and was ridden by none other than Woodbine's visiting Avelino Gomez!
Scobey Montana's Gary Danelson, the all-time leading trainer at the Downs, was Mike's mentor when he started out. Brenda explained that Gary helped Mike out a lot in the early years.
Mike knew what it was like trying to break into the business, and whenever possible made sure he helped others when it was needed. Mike never forgot!
Good guy Mike was a true ambassador for racing, an ardent supporter who reached out to all: owners, fellow trainers, jockeys and racing fans in general.
Mike's view on horse ownership was basic. Make a little money and have fun with friends. Almost all of his clients were friends and if it didn't start out that way, it wasn't long before they became friends.
Mike had a special bond with his owners and had an infectious enthusiasm for the business he loved, so much so, that you wanted to be around Mike. It was like being under his spell. He had a knack of winning the confidence of those he met and when he was done, he left a sea of admirers in his wake.
The last horse Mike named was 2-year-old Angels Have Souls. Seems appropriate, doesn't it? This horse gave his good friend, Frank Licata his 1,000th win at the Downs.
Mike was a regular Mr. Congeniality. He was President of the Manitoba Division of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA) and the Vice-President of the national HBPA. He worked tirelessly for the betterment of the industry.
In a career that spanned three different decades, Equibase credits Mike with just under 500 wins from 3,274 starts and earnings of $1,679,090. He won the Downs' leading trainer title in 1981 with 60 trips to the winner's enclosure. Brenda explained that in 1981 everything just came together for Mike.
From an earnings perspective, 1989 was Mike's best year by far. Horses he conditioned that year earned $216,239 from 44 wins. His 1989 performance was buoyed by stakes wins in the Sifton (Air Combination), LaVerendrye (Corporate Ruler), Chantilly (Merlot), and probably the best win of Mike's career, the Lotto 636 Classic (Prairie Premier). Mike's last win was 22 years ago, yet he still sits in 15th place on the Downs' all-time leading trainer board with 463 victories.
Mike was taken from us while he was still in his prime. He was 47. Brenda mourned for Mike on her terms. She explained that there wasn't always time for tears. They would come alright, but there was work on the farm that had to be done and there were horses that needed her care.
Brenda, with a great deal of help from Tracy, Randy and Christie, kept the farm going for five years following Mike's death. Mike always believed that in tough times the best therapy was to keep mind and body busy, and that is exactly what the youthful Brenda did. In 1995 she knew the time had come to retire from the farm and get on with a different life.
Family friend and Downs' racetracker Jodi Radul offered this reflection: "Mike was the first guy I worked for when I started, he was a class act. Always thoughtful. And was the first to help the little guy out. He made sure things were fair and just. A real pleasure and a heck of a fun person to be around."
On May 16, 1994, a tragic single-vehicle accident on a dark, lonely stretch of Highway #334 ended Michael Somerset Smith's dreams for the future. There are no words to describe the enormity of his loss. His partner for life, wife Brenda, lost a husband, his children Tracy, Randy and Christie, a father, and the Manitoba horse racing community, a leader and dear friend!
Mike wouldn't be happy with the state of the horse racing scene these days. No one knows for sure what he would have done about it, but rest assured he would have been front and center with the forces, working to combat the current challenges that face the sport we all love.
Mike Smith, one of the good guys.
Done too soon.