05/01/2012 2:12PM

2012 Kentucky Derby: After 36 years, Hamilton Smith gets his chance

Barbara D. Livingston
Illinois Derby winner Done Talking gallops at Churchill on Tuesday. He will be trainer Hamilton Smith's first Kentucky Derby starter.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville was not waiting with bated breath for the horse van from Laurel Park to pull through the Churchill Downs stable gate Sunday afternoon. The horse that walked down the van’s ramp, Done Talking, epitomizes the term, ‘plain bay,’ and though he wore a yellow Kentucky Derby saddle towel to train Tuesday, Done Talking radiates none of the flash of Derby runners like Union Rags or Bodemeister.

Outside the stall in the Dale Romans barn that houses Done Talking this week, a grand total of three media types waited to talk to Done Talking’s trainer, Hamilton Smith, after Done Talking had completed his first gallop over the Churchill track Tuesday.

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Attention, though, is not the reason Smith, 67, came here with Done Talking. He thinks the Illinois Derby winner belongs in the race, and the chance to run a horse in the Derby is too appealing to pass.

“You always want to run a horse in the Derby,” Smith said. “This is it, man. This is where you want to be, right?”

Smith, who began training in 1976, said he’s never before trained a colt with enough talent to make him think of coming to Louisville.

“I’ve had some good colts, but none that I thought was quite this good,” said Smith.

Done Talking’s form will appear to many not quite good enough to make him a factor in Saturday’s race, but the colt has steadily improved since debuting last August at Delaware Park, and with so much early speed lined up for the Derby, Done Talking’s late-running style could propel him into the picture. Smith said he hopes for a mid-pack trip for Done Talking, who will be ridden by another Derby newcomer, Sheldon Russell. Russell put a nifty ride on Done Talking in the Illinois Derby, where he weaved in and out of traffic rallying from 12th to beat 13 rivals.

War Emblem in 2002 is the only previous Derby winner to have prepped in the Illinois Derby, and the Illinois Derby was the first stakes win for Done Talking, a son of Broken Vow bred by his owners, Marylanders Robert White and Lou Rehak, who race as Skeedattle Stable. Skeedattle owned and raced Done Talking’s grandmother, Gin Talking, and mother, Dixie Talking.

Done Talking finished a close fourth in the Remsen Stakes last Nov. 26, then had a brush with death a couple weeks later after contracting colitis. Smith found him trembling and feverish in his stall one morning, and upon Done Talking’s arrival at the New Bolton equine clinic, veterinarians mentioned that had the problem not been caught immediately, Done Talking might not have made it.

As it was, Done Talking needed three days to beat back his fever and another week in the clinic to ensure all was well. The illness set him back enough to provide an excuse for Done Talking’s 10th-place finish in his 3-year-old debut, the Gotham Stakes on March 3.

“I thought I had him ready, but the colitis really knocked him out, and that’s the only reason I could find for the way he ran that day,” said Smith.

Smith, who 99 percent of the Churchill backstretch would not know from a van driver, is getting a rare respite from the demands of training a string of about 50 horses without the aid of an actual assistant.

“I’ve never had one, and I guess I’m too bullheaded to stop trying to do everything myself,” he said. “I’ve been on a cruise here and there with my wife through the years. But after a day or two, I’m ready to get back to work.”