by Bob Gates
The last time I saw Smoky… he was an image in my rearview mirror. In September 2019, I had gone to the Pawluk farm for what I expected would be my final visit with Smoky Cinder.
I had travelled to Woodlands with the expressed purpose of spending time with a grandson of Northern Dancer. Ed Pawluk had told me that he was going to deal with Smoky's health issues and if I wanted to see him I had best do it sooner than later.
When my visit was done and I was ready to leave, I got in my car and drove out the driveway like I had done many times before. Only this time I glanced in my mirror and got a final glimpse of the 1997 Canadian Derby winner. It was the last time I saw him.
I am undecided as to whether the image of the snow-white gelding was a blessing or a curse. Alone in my thoughts, I drove home thinking of Smoky. It was a long, tough drive. Before I say anything more about the last time I saw Smoky, let me tell you how I came to know him.
Ed owned Smoky Cinder in partnership with his son, Jim. Ed and Jim purchased Smoky as a weanling for $2,500 USD at the Kentucky Sales. As it turns out, Smoky, a descendant of the great Northern Dancer, had a half brother that sold the following year for $225,000. So, any way you slice it, Ed and Jim got Smoky for a good price. In return, the graded stakes placed and multiple stakes winner rewarded the Pawluks with 18 victories and earnings of just under $400,000.
One night at the track, back in 2013, I approached Ed to see what I could find out about the grey-roan. I told him I was gathering background information on Smoky and I was curious to know what happened to him.
Much to my surprise I found out that Smoky was alive, well and living on Ed’s farm. Ed said that the old boy had his good days but was troubled with arthritis. He spoke proudly of the horse that did everything ever asked of him and took his owners to unimagined heights! I arranged a road trip to visit Smoky.
The first time I saw him was June 20, 2013. Ed and I met in the yard and walked down to the pasture. In the distance I could see horses, but there was one that stood apart from the others. Ed called them and to my surprise they came running. My eyes were fixated on the white one. When I asked Ed who that was, he looked at me like I was nuts. "That's Smoky!"
I had no idea that a grey-roan turned white as he aged. I will always remember the moment when our eyes met. I saw something in his gaze that is difficult to describe. You could almost sense that deep down there were still competitive juices flowing through his aging veins. Even though Smoky was turning 20 the following January, he carried himself with a majesty that only the great ones possess.
As a 2-year-old, Smoky finished third in the Winnipeg Futurity. At three he won the Manitoba Derby Trial and finished third in the Manitoba Derby, but won the coveted Canadian Derby in Edmonton. Smoky had a 7-year career on the track and retired from racing at the age of eight. His Assiniboia Downs resume looks like this:
Gold Cup: Speers: Wheat City: Free Press:
1997 - 2nd 1998 - 2nd 1998 - Won 1998 - 2nd
1998 - 2nd 1999 - Won 1999 - Won 1999 - Won
1999 - 3rd 2000 - 3rd 2000 - 2nd 2001 - Won
2000 - 2nd 2001 - Won 2001 - 3rd
2001 - 3rd
G. Sydney Halter:
1998 - 3rd
1999 - 2nd
2000 - Won
1997 - Top 3-year-old Colt/Gelding and Horse of the Year
1999 - Top Sprinter, Best Older Horse and Horse of the Year
2000 & 2001 - Top Sprinter
Let's return now to my September 2019 visit. Smoky's health had been deteriorating, but he was hanging in there. He was tough, just like he was on the track. Smoke was no quitter and he wasn't going to quit on Ed at this point in his life even though he was 25. Truth be told, Smoky had probably been ready for his "departure" from the Pawluk pasture for some time. I dare say he was ready long before his master. Ed was having a difficult time dealing with Smoky's mortality and wasn't prepared to give up on the once-in-a-lifetime horse.
My last "visit" is a bit of a blur. I took some photos of the crew and we fed them some orange crunchy treats I had brought with me. Oh yeah, with Smoky getting more than his fair share of nose rubs.
After I said my good-byes to Smoky, we went inside where Ed, Joyce and I sat at the kitchen table. The mood was somber. There wasn't a lot to be said. Joyce was her usual quiet self and kept her thoughts private. As for Ed, you knew he was hurting and there was no cure for his pain. The last months of Smoky's life could not have been easy. I can only image the conversations that he and Smoky had when they were alone in the barn.
Smoky had been a part of the Pawluk family for a quarter of a century. Not many horses can say they had only one owner. Smoky was the luckiest horse in the world. The Pawluks were good for Smoky and Smoky was good for them! If the racing gods were to grant me the power of a single wish, I would want every horse to have their own Ed and Joyce Pawluk. They are good people.
I'd love to tell you I saw all of Smoky's winning efforts and his many stakes wins. The truth is, Smoky's reign of terror took place when I was "away" from the track. I never saw him run. We became friends well after his racing was done, and I tried to get out to the farm to see him as often as I could. I'd like to think that we got close, but I'm sure it was just his love for fresh carrots that made my visits popular.
On January 8, 2020 I got the call I knew was coming but I dreaded it all the same. It was a Wednesday evening. I had just finished eating dinner. Ed called to let me know that Smoky had an appointment with the vet the next morning.
I didn't have much to say. What can you say? You express your heartfelt condolences, but words aren't enough, nowhere near enough. Our conversation was painfully short.
When I hung up, I remembered my final visit last fall and that haunting rearview mirror image of Smoky. You know, they're right, "Objects in the mirror are much closer than they appear.” To the heart.
I miss you Smoky.
Historian Note: And that my friends is another season of blog stories done. Starting next week, Ivan Bigg's Insider Newsletter will feature "The Best of Bob" where you can catch-up on stories from previous years. As always, thank you for reading and I'll see you all again next spring, hopefully when COVID is done and "Live" racing returns!