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If It's Not a Thoroughbred, It's Not for Joan Irvine Smith

February 13, 1988|DARLENE SORDILLO | Times Staff Writer and Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training and competition, covers equestrian events for The Times. Her column appears every Saturday

"Come on, let me show you my place," says the horsewoman, her long, ash-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. She hops into her Mercedes and drives it like a buckboard across her 22-acre horse farm in San Juan Capistrano.

Joan Irvine Smith, owner of the Oaks riding stable, was worlds away from the pressures of her business life.

Relaxed and reflective, she walks through the cement aisles of her hunter-jumper barn and "talks horses" with an equestrian visitor. "I prefer the jumpers to hunters," she says, almost wistfully. "The scoring (in jumper classes) is objective. There are no politics involved. Either you knock the rail down, or you don't."

In a world that has not always seemed fair to her, Joan Irvine Smith, horsewoman, has learned a few lessons from Joan Irvine Smith, businesswoman. A gruff-talking, shoot-from-the-hip, Katharine Hepburn type, she knows exactly what she likes--and doesn't like--whether she is in the board room or the tack room.

Thoroughbred horses are clearly her passion. She owns two dozen of them and knows innately how to select quality horseflesh. "I bought this one from a photograph," she says, pointing to a Thoroughbred gelding in an oversized box stall. "Had him shipped here from Virginia. Bought him from my ex-husband. He knows what kind of horses I'll buy. Thoroughbreds, that's what."

Los Angeles Times Saturday February 27, 1988 Orange County Edition Orange County Life Part 9 Page 8 Column 1 Life Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
For the Record: Due to a reporting error, the Feb. 13 horses column stated that Joan Irvine Smith has several trainers and riders working with her hunters and jumpers at The Oaks. Smith's sole trainer is Jimmy Kohn and her rider is Alain Vaillancourt.

But what of the recent trend toward larger, more powerful jumpers, such as European warmbloods, asks a visitor in riding togs.

"Don't talk to me about those," says a vexed Smith, waving her hand. "If it's not a Thoroughbred, it's not for me. I told you the only horses worth having are Thoroughbreds."

Her demeanor softens as she slides open a stall door to pat one of her rangy Thoroughbreds. "Now, you're a nice guy, aren't you?" she coos to the horse.

Smith walks through the barn, where her private stock is kept, and addresses each horse by name. The businesswoman insists that "this is a commercial facility, and every horse is for sale," but the horsewoman admits that she recently turned down an $800,000 offer for Hermes, one of her favorite mounts. "He's too nice to let go of for that price," she says defensively. "He's worth more."

Money, of course, often does the talking, whether it's in the horse world or the business world. Smith has been known to use her bankroll in ways that most riders can only dream about. Once she literally bought a horse out from under a rider at a competition because she didn't like the way the animal was being treated.

"Guess how I did it?" she says, chuckling and poking the visitor with her elbow. "I walked over to the owner, asked the price, and wrote out a check right on the spot."

Smith has accumulated a string of top-flight jumpers in her stable, and employs several top riders and trainers to show them. Her chief trainer is Jimmy Kohn, a nationally renowned trainer who many years ago was Olympic trainer George Morris' first student to win the national Medal finals. She also has a dressage trainer, Tom Betts, on the premises for some of her boarders who prefer flatwork to fences.

In addition to Smith's horses, there are another 50 mounts at the Oaks owned by private boarders. To enable average horsemen along with the well-heeled to board there, monthly fees for a stall vary from $250 in the lower barn (straight board only) to $800 in the hilltop barn (which includes grooming, training and other amenities).

Smith takes particular pride in the landscaping she has done with the property, which she began to acquire parcel-by-parcel about three years ago. "This is a commercial facility with the ambiance of a private estate," she says. "I wanted people to feel as though they were driving into a friend's horse farm when they come down the driveway."

As she drives her car past the electronically controlled gate that shelters the property from busy Ortega Highway, Smith points to various clusters of trees and flowers. "See this?" she says. "Did it all myself. Landscaping gives me an opportunity to be creative, and the horses give me a way to get away from work and relax."

Winding her car along the slightly muddied drive to the back barns, Smith comes across her son and his wife, who are holding hands and strolling through the property. "Hop in," she says, pulling her car to a quick stop.

The couple decline, pointing at their muddied boots. But Smith insists. "Oh, what's a little mud?" she says as they reluctantly open the back door and pile onto the leather seat.

For Joan Irvine Smith, horses--and the muck and mire that sometimes comes with them--have long been a part of life. She began riding hunters and jumpers as a child and never let anything keep her from the saddle. The day she gave birth to her son, she had been out riding. "No jumping or anything," she says with a bemused smile. "Just a little trotting here and there."

And last summer, a few days before the $50,000 Oaks Grand Prix (Orange County's largest jumping show), Smith took a pregnant employee around and about on some rigorous errands. The woman gave birth a few hours later. "Well, I couldn't have her walking around 9 1/2 months pregnant at the grand prix, now, could I?" says Smith with a laugh as she gives the young mother a hug.

Although she clearly prefers such horsetalk, the businesswoman side of Smith--and her protracted legal battle with Donald L. Bren over how much money she should receive for her stock in the Irvine Co.--is never too far away.

Walking through her stable at the end of the day, she quips: "If my court case is over by next summer, I'll double the purse at the grandprix to $100,000."

"See that horse?" She points to a big bay jumper who qualified for the World Cup. "His name is Last Laugh. I'm going to ride him right to the bank with my check from Donald (Bren). Won't that be grand?"

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