Updated on 09/17/2011 10:53AM

Little fish, big horse

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Trainer T.V. Smith has been training for four decades, but he has never run a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Offlee Wild (above), who runs in Saturday's Fountain of Youth, could be his first.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The other morning at Gulfstream Park, jockey Roger Velez happened by the barn of trainer T.V. Smith. Velez, like Smith, is a veteran horseman known more for grinding out a good living than living large on a national scale.

Three years ago, Velez reached the high point of his career when he rode Hal's Hope to victory in the Florida Derby. Hal's Hope was named for his then 88-year-old trainer, Harold Rose.

"You see this horse," Smith said to Velez, pointing to a dark bay colt. "This is T.V.'s hope."

Smith was talking about Offlee Wild, who has quickly developed into one of the nation's leading 3-year-olds and is a potential starter in the Kentucky Derby, which would be a first for Smith.

Smith, 65, has been training horses for four decades. In that time, he has trained a number of solid stakes-class runners in the Midwest. He had his greatest success in the 1970's and 1980's, when he was a force at Ak-Sar-Ben in Omaha, Neb. In recent years, though, Smith has usually trained a string of no more than a dozen horses while wintering in Florida and spending the rest of the year in Kentucky.

"I was a big fish in a little pond in Omaha," Smith said. "I'm a little fish in a big pond now."

Smith flirted with a Kentucky Derby run in 1999 with Grits'n Hard Toast, who won the Holy Bull. That horse, though, faltered on the road to Louisville, and ended up going to lesser-known derbies in Iowa and Ohio. In Offlee Wild, Smith may have a horse who can finally take him all the way to the Derby.

First things first, however. Offlee Wild must clear the next hurdle, Saturday's $200,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes, the first Grade 1 race of the year open to all 3-year-olds.

After finishing fourth in his debut at Keeneland, Offlee Wild has won twice in his subsequent three starts. He was a five-length winner against maidens at Churchill Downs, finished second in a first-level allowance race at Churchill, then, in his first start around two turns, won the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull on Jan. 18 at 27-1 while earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 99.

"The first time he ran, he wore blinkers, and he came out of the gate like a Quarter Horse," Smith said. "The gas tank was empty. We want him to settle in and run at the end. That's what happened in the Holy Bull. He sat in a perfect spot, gutted it out at the end, and we were lucky enough to win the photo."

Offlee Wild's coat and head strikingly resemble those of his sire, Wild Again. He is out of a Seattle Slew mare. As a yearling, Offlee Wild was purchased for $325,000 by Azalea Stables, a partnership headed by Louisville resident Lansdon Robbins, the 37-year-old chief executive officer of the consulting firm Service Net. Offlee Wild was one of four yearlings Azalea purchased two years ago. All went to Smith.

"We were tickled to death to get him," Smith said. "He's got all the criteria comformation-wise and breeding-wise. From Day 1, we thought he was a top prospect. He's done everything we've asked."

Offlee Wild also has shown a stubborn side. "He's got a mind of his own. He can be bull-headed," Smith said. "If he says I want to do this this way, we let him.

"He gallops more relaxed now. He can be pretty tough. When he wants to go, he can go."

Smith has given Offlee Wild a fairly easy schedule since the Holy Bull. He planned a five-furlong workout for Wednesday morning as his final tune-up for the Fountain of Youth.

"He's training good," Smith said. "I want to hold the strength in him. He had a five-furlong work four days before the Holy Bull."

Smith brings a lifetime of experience around animals to the table in his handling of Offlee Wild. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., where his father, Leonard, was a rancher.

"I grew up with a lot of livestock," Smith said. "And my dad was very horse-oriented. He was quite a polo player. He spent time in the remount. He was in the First Cavalry before World War II, when they still had horses."

Smith first was exposed to racehorses through his uncle, Myron, a trainer on the Arkansas-Illinois-Michigan circuit. Smith worked for him during the summer while on school breaks. "I became quite fascinated with horse racing," Smith said.

Smith attended the University of South Dakota, and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in business administration. But he wanted to give the racetrack a go.

"I asked my wife to let me try for five years," he said. "If I didn't make it, I'd still be young enough to pursue other goals."

He's still training, and, after 43 years, he and Ann are still married, despite his admittedly narrowly focused lifestyle.

"I don't play golf," Smith said. "I don't fish. My wife accuses me of being a workaholic, and I probably am."

Smith ran his first horse at Fair Grounds in New Orleans in 1962. He was known as Vic Smith growing up, forgoing his first name for his middle name. On his license application in Louisiana, Smith filled out the form with his given name, Thomas V. Smith. But the program at Fair Grounds listed him as T.V. Smith.

"I thought it was unique, so I hung onto it," he said.

From 1962-73, Smith spent winters in Florida and the rest of the year in Omaha, Detroit, Chicago, and Louisville. He was based permanently at Ak-Sar-Ben for nearly 20 years in search of a less peripatetic life for his family, which includes a son, Tim - who is now an anesthesiologist in Scottsdale, Ariz. - and a daughter, Trish Borel, who now works in the racing office at Churchill Downs.

At Ak-Sar-Ben, Smith was one of the kingpins, along with Jack Van Berg and Van Berg's father, Marion.

"I thought I'd be there the rest of my life," Smith said of the now-defunct track. "It was such a wonderful place to race on the scale of racing they had there. But when things started to deteriorate there, I moved to Louisville in 1991. Now, I won't even go by the place anymore."

Smith speaks with a modest voice as flat as the plains. He is a realist, having seen plenty of hopes dashed in this game. Ak-Sar-Ben was one. Grits'n Hard Toast, another. He is hoping Offlee Wild can provide more high points, but is prepared for anything, because he has seen everything.

"I'm very happy to have one of this quality," Smith said. "But like Old Man Van Berg said, horses are like fine china, they're fragile."