01/15/2004 12:00AM

J.R. Smith, trainer, dead at 68

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J.R. Smith Sr., long one of the leading trainers in Illinois, died Tuesday at his home near Chicago. He was 68 and had pancreatic cancer.

Lacking owners with the deepest pockets, Smith used skills honed over five decades of training to turn lesser animals into stakes winners. Year after year, he consistently won races, and he is the second-leading trainer in the history of Arlington Park.

Smith started training at Beulah Park in Ohio before he was old enough to be licensed. He never looked back. In the 1970's, he went to a horse auction in New York colorfully called the broken bones sale, plunked down $3,500, and came back to Chicago with a rogue named Bill Bonbright. The horse became a stakes winner, a scenario that would repeat itself. Smith claimed Recoup the Cash and turned him into a graded stakes horse, and more recently did the same with an Illinois-bred named Chicago Six.

There is no funeral service pending, according to Smith's son, J.R. Smith Jr., who said a memorial service would be held in February.