05/21/2001 12:00AM

Master claimer's master claim


STICKNEY, Ill. - There is no cell phone on trainer J.R. Smith's hip pocket, no laptop in his barn office.

He does not attend high-powered yearling sales with an entourage in tow. Late Tuesday morning in his Hawthorne barn, a groom and an exercise rider held down a goat while Smith clipped the animal's overgrown hooves.

Smith, 61, grew up on an Indiana farm and clearly has not abandoned his roots. Sometimes cranky with a gruff shell difficult for an outsider to penetrate, Smith has not won awards for congeniality. But horses respond to his care and training like they do for few trainers.

Smith's latest project, the former claimer Chicago Six, starts Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup, where he can cement a position as one of the region's top handicap horses. Smith got Chicago Six the way he obtains much of his racing stock, through the claiming box.

"I've had good owners, but never owners buying me horses for $300,000 at sales," Smith said. "I've got to claim or buy them cheaper."

The claiming game is Smith's bread and butter. Claiming trainers dream of unearthing even one stakes winner. During his 44 years in the business, Smith has claimed more stakes winners than he immediately can call to mind.

Only six years ago, Smith and Chicago Six's owner, Richard Trebat, won the 1994 Gold Cup with the Recoup the Cash. They had claimed him the year before for a mere $15,000. Recoup the Cash retired in 1998 with a $1 million bankroll. In a worn ledger book Smith still keeps a chart of every start Recoup the Cash made. "He's one of my favorites," he said.

Now there's Chicago Six, an Illinois-bred 6-year-old with the blue-blooded pedigree Smith and Trebat seek in a potential claim. Bred by Dick Duchossois's Hill 'n Dale farm, Chicago Six is by Wild Again out of the Secretariat mare Secretaridge.

Despite his pedigree, Chicago Six's racing career had foundered two years ago, when he was a 4-year-old. Claimed by Smith and Trebat for only $18,000 in September 1999, Chicago Six "started coming around in November and December," that year, Smith said. "You don't just change a horse in a couple weeks."

Last year, Chicago Six won a handful of Illinois-bred stakes. Trebat wondered why Smith didn't test the horse in a bigger race. "He told me, 'I want to build his confidence,' " Trebat said. "He wanted to keep him good and sound, get him ready for the bigger races this year."

Smith's patient two-year plan succeeded. Chicago Six has earned $548,983, the bulk of it under Smith, and has won five straight stakes. Last month he beat the Grade 2 winner Guided Tour in the Grade 3 National Jockey Club Handicap, a race Recoup the Cash also won.

Trebat, mostly retired from the men's apparel business, has learned to trust Smith completely. "More than once, I wanted to claim one and he'd say no, and after two or three more races it [the horse] would be a cripple. He was always right."

Similar compliments flow from the backstretch. "He's a master of the claiming game," said Pat Cucurrullo, a successful claiming trainer himself.

"You have to be tough to stick around," said trainer Wayne Catalano, who has been around a racetrack for 30 years. "J.R.'s good, real good. He's a good man, too."

And there's the rub. Beneath the tough exterior a heart beats, too. Smith has shed tears in the winner's circle after graded stakes wins. Going against the grain of itinerant backstretch life, his employees tend to stick with him for years. Later Tuesday morning, when another goat barged into his office, Smith barked at the animal to leave, but then gently stroked its head when it refused.

Almost 45 years after his first win, Smith works hard. He leaves home each day at 4 a.m. and never misses an afternoon of racing. He couldn't. Smith wants to see every horse that races here walk from the paddock onto the track in the afternoon. In his desk drawer are all the programs from the current meet. Notations in pencil adorn their margins. Smith translates: "Knee, ankle, another knee. And this one," he said, pointing to a horse's name, "a big, good-looking horse. The kind I like."

Smith says he can diagnosis most horses's leg problems in an instant. "I start at the knees and work my way down." Once he claims a horse, "we go over it from teeth to tail. We get them on the feed program. The feed man doesn't like me much. I'll only take the best hay, the best oats. If the hay is no good, it goes back."

In training, his horses rarely show a fast breeze, instead putting in a series of slow five-furlong workouts. It helps them stay sound, helps build stamina, and allows a horse like Chicago Six to develop into a graded stakes winner at an advanced age.

Tuesday, Chicago Six had a typical Smith breeze, poking through a half-mile in about 52 seconds. "I don't know what they got him in exactly," Smith growled. But Smith feels like Chicago Six is training as well as could be hoped, which should be proof enough that the horse will run big Saturday.