Bill Smith, a prominent harness racing owner, visited orthopedic specialist Robert Kerlan for knee surgery earlier this year.
When Smith optimistically said he had a 2-year-old pacer with national championship potential, Kerlan--a racing aficionado--replied, "Bill, you've had two champions. Isn't that enough?"
"I pointed up to the sky and said, 'Nobody says you can't have three,' " Smith said.
Smith, who owned and bred Sir Dalrae, the 1973 harness horse of the year, and Mr. Dalrae, 1984 aged pacer of the year, owns the Dal Rae restaurant in Pico Rivera and the appropriately named A La Carte racing stable.
Smith puffed a cigar last week in his restaurant's Stall of Fame Room, where steaks and stakes dominate the discussion. The walls are covered with racing pictures, clippings and awards. Suspended from the ceiling in the middle of the room is a 38 1/2-pound northern ash sulky used with Sir Dalrae.
The sulky stayed put during the Whittier earthquake so diners below can eat in peace.
A drawing of a horseshoe frames a floor-to-ceiling head shot of Sir Dalrae on one wall. Restaurant napkins list a detailed history of the two pacers' championship years. Matchboxes carry a picture of Sir Dalrae. Tapes of dozens of the major races the pair won around the continent can be seen on a television screen in one corner.
But that's all history. Smith, 74, is nostalgic but has a new set of knees and a renewed itch for another champion during the 1990s.
"I've had 18 or 20 horses for several years but sold all my older ones this year," he said. "I just sold a Bret Hanover filly named Imbibe that's been racing at Los Alamitos to Castleton Farm. She's out of a mare named Pleasure Ahead, by Good Time. I wasted such a good name on such a lousy horse. I could outrun her.
"I had horses in five different places. Now I just have a few young ones in training with Jim Dennis. I notice I have money in the bank now."
Smith will be at Los Alamitos Thursday night for the season debut of 3-year-old filly pacer Tip 'n Tax in the second race. But it's the 2-year-old division that brings a twinkle to his blue eyes.
"My pride and joy is a colt named Royal Salute," Smith said with conviction in his voice. "He's by No Nukes out of Chin Chin, my good mare who is a full sister to Mr. Dalrae and a half sister to Sir Dalrae. I've also got a nice Mr. Dalrae colt named Mr. Gourmet.
"Without a young one to look forward to, this game can get dull," Smith said.
Both colts are scheduled to begin racing at Sacramento next month, then go to Chicago with Dennis for stakes engagements in the Midwest and East in June.
Smith also owns a thoroughbred, a 2-year-old filly named I'm Really Dancing, trained by Tom Bell at Santa Anita.
Smith is such an avid racing fan that he roots for relatives of Sir Dalrae, Mr. Dalrae and Chin Chin, whether he owns them or not.
"Dalrae Star, a daughter of Darling Dal, who was a daughter of Sir Dalrae, just won stakes at Windsor and Greenwood in Canada last month," the proud Smith said.
"Remember the name Pastina. I sold her last year as a yearling to Doug Ackerman for Richard Staley. She's by No Nukes out of Aldente, a daughter of Chin Chin. If I know anything about racing, she'll be the best 2-year-old filly pacer in the country."
Smith, an Omaha native who played basketball at Creighton University and went to law school there, thanks racing for his life.
"I was in the (Army Air Corps), stationed at Monroe, La., in 1944," he said. "I was supposed to fly to New York but because it was Kentucky Derby weekend, I asked if I could go to Louisville. I was able to make the change, and even bet Pensive (the winner)."
Smith's jubilant mood turned somber when he learned that the flight to New York had crashed, killing everyone aboard.
Smith moved to the West Coast and took over the original Dal Rae restaurant on Western and 105th Street near Hollywood Park in 1951, keeping it open until 1969. He began the current Dal Rae on East Washington near Rosemead in 1958.
"Harness and thoroughbred horsemen used to come into the old Dal Rae all the time," said Smith. "I would have become an owner earlier but I thought if I bought a few horses, I would have to give them one trainer, hurting the feelings of others and hurting business."
In 1960, a restaurant patron named Murray Fairthrone talked Smith into becoming a partner in two standardbreds, Golden Cross and Queen's Crown.
Queen's Crown became the foundation mare for all Smith's success. In 1967, Fairthrone sold out his half of a six-horse stable.
"Queen's Crown goes back to Nibble Hanover," said Smith. "Queen's Crown and Bret Hanover are out of full sisters. Queen's Crown was double-gaited. She took a record on both the pace and trot and lived to 30.