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THE WORK ETHIC : Charlie Smith, Done Horsing Around, Still Hammers Away at Los Alamitos

June 22, 1989|STEVE LOWERY | Times Staff Writer

Take it easy, Charlie Smith. Take a vacation, take a tonic, take a hike, take a gander at your accomplishments and your bank statement and take off, will you please.

You won eight national riding titles in your career and all that time you were saving nickels and dimes, not to mention C-notes, T-bills and stock options. You are that rare and fortunate individual who is secure in his past and future.

So why are you at present sitting in the Los Alamitos Race Course maintenance department break room, digging your teeth into a white onion, preparing to put up a few more acoustic ceiling tiles in the banquet room?

Charlie Smith, you're a carpenter at Los Alamitos Race Course. The question is why?

Why is a guy, so successful that he was known as the Willie Shoemaker of quarter-horse racing, still working at the age of 58? Why is a man who had numerous seasons of earning $100,000-plus worrying about fitting doors and replacing molding and ceiling tiles in the banquet room?

The answer is, Charlie Smith must work. He doesn't need the money, Smith has plenty of money. He's one of the founders of the Bank of Westminster, he owns a couple of houses, he owns property in his home state of Oklahoma, one parcel recently had natural gas discovered on it.

Charlie works because that is what he has done his entire life. From working his father's farm in Oklahoma, to delivering groceries from the old man's market. He has worked in glass factories, saw mills and ammunition dumps. In 1959, Smith had to decide whether to ride quarter horses in front of thousands of spectators in California or fix cars in downtown Tulsa. This was not an easy choice.

"I had all my tools and I was a pretty good mechanic," he said. "I didn't care about being famous or anything, I just want the money. Riding horses was always a job to me."

Unlike most jockeys who grow up with horses and love horses and can't live without riding horses, Charlie Smith grew up with horses and thought horses were an OK way to get from point A to point B.

"I rode horses as a kid, but I wasn't big on horses," he said.

He first started racing as a young man with a young wife, Doris, living in a small town outside McAlester, Okla. Doris and Charlie had each grown up around McAlester, grown up during the Depression and Dust Bowl years. They saw farms fail and families flee west. Then came the war and rationing.

"Things were very tough, no one gave you anything," Smith said.

Neither family went hungry; Doris' owned a farm, Charlie's the market.

"We always had food, but not much else," Doris said. "You try to tell kids about what it was like and they just can't understand. I guess nobody can unless they live through something like that."

But if you do live through it, you don't forget it. Charlie and Doris live in a relatively modest house in Anaheim. Smith makes a point of mentioning that he has never owned a Cadillac. It was only recently that the family had two cars at one time. Doris with her Chrysler, Charlie with his pickup.

"I've never been one to spend," Smith said. "Some of the guys I've ridden with spend money like crazy. I could live off what they spent."

When Doris and Charlie were first married, Charlie worked at a local military post. Someone had seen him ride a horse, noticed he was a natural at getting the most out of an animal, and suggested he ride in the local match races.

Charlie did and won. He'd make $5 for winning a $500 race. By 1957, he decided to try his hand at a licensed track in Denver. He won some races, the horse would usually win $70 and Charlie would get $7. Things were looking up.

To cut down on costs, Charlie slept in equipment rooms and horse stalls.

"You just find yourself an empty stall and throw yourself down," Smith said. "They run me out of the stalls eventually because they were afraid I might start a fire."

He also rode in Florida, riding every race he could just to make ends meet. Then, in 1959, he came to California to race at Los Alamitos and Bay Meadows Park in San Mateo. Doris begged him not to go, she wanted to stay home in Oklahoma, but Charlie heard a winning jockey could earn a lot more than a mechanic, and that's all he needed to hear.

By 1962, he was earning $100,000 a season. In 13 meets, from the fall of 1961 to the fall of 1967, he won 11 riding championships at Los Alamitos.

"I knew how to judge a horse," Smith said. "I could tell if a horse could run by the feel of him. And I never believed anyone could run a horse faster than I could. It was my business, I knew every horse on the track when I was riding. I made sure that if my horse lost, it wouldn't be because of me."

It was 1974 that Smith decided to quit riding. He had always been a bit tall for a jockey--5-feet-8--and was naturally around 145 pounds. Dropping the necessary 30 pounds or so started to become harder and harder. He spent hours in the "hot box" a torture/sweat device designed to melt portions of a person's body.

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