08/28/2009 11:00PM

Change in scene for top pinhooker


At first, she would get things like, "Hey there, Mrs. Smith, where can I find your husband, Murray?"

Later on, after her name was associated with headline horses, the tune changed, a little. It became, "No way you can be this good-looking and smart."

Of course, by then Murray Smith was well on her way as a bloodstock agent, and she could fire back with impunity.

"Okay, so if I was a short, fat, ugly bald man," she'd say, "would you give me credit?"

Credit is definitely due. Smith has been involved with Thoroughbreds for more than 20 years. She caught the wave of 2-year-olds in training sales and rode it to pinhooking fame. It's a crowded field, and a lot of bloodstock entrepreneurs have tried their hand. But Smith is the one who:

* Bought Smoke Glacken as a weanling in 1994 for $14,000 and sold him a few months later for $34,000.

* Bought Monarchos right off the farm for $100,000 as a yearling and sold him to John Oxley for $170,000.

* Bought Ruler's Court for $60,000 as a yearling and sold him to Sheikh Mohammed for $400,000 as a 2-year-old.

* Bought What a Song for $95,000 as a yearling and sold him for $1.9 million as a 2-year-old to Robert Lewis, who won a bidding battle with Sid Craig.

* Bought Wild Fit for $50,000 as a yearling, bought her back at a 2-year-olds in training sale, sold half, and subsequently consigned her to the 2005 Keeneland November sale, where she brought a bid of $3 million from Coolmore.

Those names should all sound familiar. Smoke Glacken ended up sprint champion of 1996. Monarchos won the 2001 Kentucky Derby. Ruler's Court set a record winning the 2005 Norfolk Stakes by 14 lengths, while What a Song won the 2005 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar before suffering a fatal training injury.

As for Wild Fit, she won the 2005 Del Mar Debutante and then finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Her accomplishments gave Smith bragging rights to prospecting three of the best 2-year-olds seen in California that season.

"I built my farm in Ocala, I love my friends, and I've got a lot of great memories," said Smith, a native of Pensacola, Fla. "But I don't know . . . Del Mar just had a special draw."

We'll get to a few of those later. First, Smith had to interrupt her first full season at Del Mar and confront the same schedule dozens of top-class agents face as summer fades. There was the sale of yearlings at Ocala during the week of Aug. 24, with more than 1,100 cataloged, and then comes the Keeneland September marathon, with its stack of catalogs containing the names of more than 5,100 yearlings for sale.

"I don't use a team, or a committee to look at anything," Smith said. "I like to look at all my own horses.

"At Keeneland, I like to stand at the very back of the ring, where they first enter," Smith went on. "I can at least get a pretty good idea if I like them or not. And then I buy from the consignors and the people I trust."

Smith, 48, calls upon a lifetime of familiarity with horses to cut through the ordinary offerings. Just about anybody can figure out a prime pedigree.

For Smith, it's the package that counts.

"I was horse-crazy from the time I was 3, riding show ponies all the time," Smith said. "I look at racehorses like I looked at show horses when I rode them. It's really very simple, and all mechanical."

Her late father, Stanford Y. Smith, was a Navy pilot who later went into international corporate consulting. Murray - a name that's been in the Smith family for "about 200 years," she said - describes herself as a "tomboy from day one."

"When I rode show horses I wanted a horse with a long neck, long shoulder, deep girth, short cannon bones, good pastern angle, straight hind leg, low hock, because I know how they needed to move," Smith said. "I applied that to racehorses, knowing that the horse that moves over the ground most efficiently is easiest on himself and stays sounder, and that the angle of the shoulder and depth of girth indicates the chest cavity, and the volume of air is exactly related to the stride - inhaled as the legs go up and exhaled as the legs go out.

"I was asked if I could teach somebody what I do," she said. "We're talking about a lifelong experience. I look at horses just walking past them. I look in their eye, the way they carry themselves, the way they move. I have to make a decision watching them walk, whether or not they can run. Whether they have the ability, the heart. It's a gut instinct.

"When I look at horses, it's yes-no real quick," Smith said. "If it's yes, then I look closer, and decide if I can live with their faults. There is no perfect horse. We just need to learn over time, by the mistakes we've made, what we can and can't live with. Horses are horses, and horses get hurt. Most of the time it's human error. It's not the breed, it's us."

Smith's yearling purchases head for her Ocala farm, where she continues their development.

"I hear people say we shouldn't race 2-year-olds because we're so hard on them," Smith said. "I say wait a minute. Come to my barn every day. You have to use good horsemanship, and know when to press and when to pull back. Horses are professional athletes. It's my job to find their maximum ability at the time without hurting them. I'm like a college coach, and then they go on to the NFL."

Like nearly every corner of the Thoroughbred racing world, the role of bloodstock agent usually is played by a man. Even in these more modern times, it's the guys who move the Thoroughbred merchandise more often than not. Smith stood out, as author and Thoroughbred breeder Jim Squires noted in his book, "Horse of a Different Color." It was Squires who bred Monarchos and sold him to Smith, in the early spring of 1999.

"Besides having a wonderful eye for the horse," Squires writes, "Murray Smith owns the world's most impressive pair of blue jeans, which she frequently wears on shopping trips and into which she had been poured that March day."

One cold shower later, Squires managed an appreciation of Smith's way of doing business.

"As women go, Murray Smith does not depend on charm as a business tool," Squires writes. "Her Sphinx-like demeanor might well have been copied from another pinhooker of equally renowned eye, the Irishman Bobby Barry. . . . Both see everything when they look at a horse but do so as if any sign of life on their part would somehow double the price they ultimately would have to pay."

Smith knew she was roaming in a traditionally male preserve.

"I was single, and I was fiercely driven to be competitive," she said. "I didn't do it to prove anything to anybody else. I did it to prove it to myself. So I never thought of it as breaking into the men's club. Anyway, if you do something to earn their respect, you'll get their respect. Bottom line.

"I still think it's a good old boys' club, but I'm okay with that," she added. "I like to be around men a lot more than I hang around women."

One man in particular, though. Smith's romance with Del Mar began last May with things like the weather and the food and the friendly citizens and soon involved financial consultant Kelly Chamberlain.

"He's the most wonderful man I've ever met," Smith confessed. "I was sitting on the beach, and he literally walked out of the ocean the first time I laid eyes on him."

California is a state where practically everyone is from somewhere else. Smith has fit right in - yes, she has surfed - and she is working on a plan that would split her time between tending to the horses at her Ocala training facility and nurturing new business out West.

With the future of Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in limbo and racehorse investment on the wane, California might not look like the mother lode right now, but Smith sees the wine glass more than half full.

"Horse racing is beautiful," Smith said. "Why not try reaching out to new people to get involved - entrepreneurs, people in technology, guys who like sports teams but don't know racing. I love the game and I want to support it. There's the beauty of the sport, the beauty of the horse, and there's still money to be made."