He’ll probably look a little bit older than you remember, but that’s only to be expected given that he celebrates his 90th birthday today. And he only drinks halves now, rather than the pints he might have been putting away in his prime. But get him talking, and you’ll be left in no doubt that you’re in the presence of arguably the finest racehorse trainer the North-East has ever produced.
Not bad indeed. Born only six years after the end of the First World War, Denys Smith was a taxi driver before he met his wife, Jean, and was persuaded by his new father-in-law, Bert Richardson, to join him as a cattle dealer.
Richardson’s hobby was owning trotting horses, and Smith was persuaded to help out. “I’d never even put a bridle or a saddle on a horse, but Bert had a horse called Betty and I took her to Appleby on Whit Monday and she won the heat by 100 yards and then the final by 100 yards too,” he said. “That’s when I thought I could maybe make a go of things.”
Smith bought three trotters from Germany, one of which, Master Richard, is still spoken of in reverential tones amongst the harness racing fraternity of County Durham. “He won everywhere – Wolsingham, Stanhope, Egglestone – but then I took him up to Musselburgh and we were disqualified for a false start, even though we were starting 21 seconds back,” he said. “That was the end of it for me.”
Disillusioned with trotting, Smith began training point-to-point horses, quickly took out his permit to train under rules, and saddled his first winner when Owen’s Mark triumphed at Sedgefield in 1958.
Over the course of the next 45 years, he would become one of the most successful trainers in the country, regularly saddling more than 50 winners during a flat season, before repeating the feat a few months later over the jumps.
“Loads of people were telling me, ‘Denys, you can’t do this’,” he said. “The attitude at the time was that the flat was the flat, and the jumps was the jumps. You didn’t mix the two. I was having none of it, and before long, Peter Easterby was following me, and then Mary Reveley did too. Now, you’ll find most trainers running horses right through the year.”
By the time he saddled his final winner – Monksford at Hamilton in 2002 – Smith had won pretty much everything that was worth winning. He won the Lincoln with Foggy Bell, the Middle Park with Tudenham and the Flying Childers with Mandrake Major. He also won the Scottish Champion Hurdle with Dondieu and claimed a Cheltenham Festival success courtesy of King Cutler.
There is no doubt about his greatest triumph, though, as evidenced by the pub, formerly known as the Crown and Anchor, that now bears the image of Red Alligator, the winner of the 1968 Grand National. Or, if popular folklore is to be believed, by the thousands of houses in Bishop Auckland that were paid for by the winnings from that glorious spring day at Aintree.
With a bit more luck, Red Alligator might well have triumphed 12 months earlier, but he was one of the horses caught up in the carnage that eventually resulted in Foinavon winning the National at 100-1, and eventually finished third after having to have three attempts to jump a single fence.
By the time the 1968 race rolled around, he was in peak condition, and at odds of around 12-1, and partnered by a 19-year-old Brian Fletcher, he produced an impeccable display of jumping to coast home by 17 lengths.
“We fancied him,” said Smith. “He’d already won the Durham National at Sedgefield and the Yorkshire National at Catterick, so he was made for that type of race. I remember seeing him going over the Melling Road with three fences to go and saying, ‘He’s won this’. He didn’t let me down.”
The victory was followed by a civic reception that saw Red Alligator paraded all the way down Newgate Street to Bishop Auckland’s Town Hall. “It took all night to do it because people were coming out of the pubs with buckets of beer for the horse,” said Smith. “I think he enjoyed himself.”
The only disappointment was that Richardson, his father-in-law and mentor, died two days before the race. “It put a dampener on things,” said Smith. “He was telling anyone who would listen in the build-up to the race that he was going to win. I only wish he’d lived to be able to see it.”
The victory catapulted Smith into the highest echelons of British racing, but self-taught and fiercely independent, he always revelled in his outsider status and liked nothing better than getting one over on the aristocratic gentry who ran racing from the south. He was also no respecter of reputations, no matter how lofty.
“I always remember booking Lester Piggott to ride for me at Newmarket in the 1970s,” he said. “He was going to ride a horse called Baldur for me, but then I found out the day before that he’d agreed to ride one for Bernard van Cutsem instead.
“He claimed he had a retainer for him, but I said, ‘Lester, everyone knows no one has a retainer for you’. Anyway, I just said, ‘Listen, it doesn’t matter because whatever you’re riding, we’ll finish one place in front of you’. I got Alan Bond to ride for me, and Baldur beat Lester’s horse by five lengths.”
As he reflects on his career, Smith only has the one regret. “I’d love to have won the Northumberland Plate,” he said. “I was second in it twice, and as a proud North-Easterner, that’s something I felt was missing.”
Nevertheless, as he nurses his beer in the ‘Denys Smith snug’, the new nonagenarian looks perfectly content with the world. He still loves his racing – “never miss a meeting at Sedgefield or Catterick” – and takes obvious pride in his daughter, Susan, who is the secretary at Catterick, his granddaughter, Caroline, who is the secretary at Redcar, and his grandson, Richard, who is one of the leading point-to-point jockeys on the Yorkshire circuit.
After a lifetime in racing, his enthusiasm has not waned. And most pleasingly of all, his daily tipple provides a constant reminder of the extent of his achievements.