GRAND National-winning trainer Denys Smith has died, aged 92.

The County Durham handler enjoyed his finest hour at Aintree in 1968 when Red Alligator claimed National glory under Brian Fletcher.

Smith could even have claimed the big race 12 months earlier, but the same horse finished a distant third after he became embroiled in the notorious 23rd-fence pile-up that led to Foinavon causing a 100-1 upset.

The Northern Echo:

John Wade and Denys Smith at Catterick Racecourse in 2003

A former taxi driver, the self-taught Smith was seen as one of the pioneering trainers of his generation and also won two Group One races on the Flat.

Smith was crowned champion jumps trainer in the 1967-68 campaign but he was prolific on the Flat, too, having won races like the Lincoln (Foggy Bell), the Middle Park (Tudenham) and the Flying Childers (Mandrake Major).

He was also a Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer and landed a division of the Gloucestershire Hurdle (now the Supreme Novices' Hurdle) in 1968.

Owen's Mark provided Smith with a first victory under Rules at Sedgefield in February 1958, while Monksford gave him his last winner at Hamilton in 2002.

The Northern Echo:

Denys Smith at the stables at Holdforth Farm, the former home of National winner Red Aligator in 2006. Photo: Keith Taylor

He saddled more than 1,600 winners from his Bishop Auckland yard in a career that spanned nearly 50 years.

Former jockey Chris Grant left school as a 15-year-old to work for Smith, in a union which lasted 15 years, and said he owed everything in racing to his former boss.

Grant, who is now a trainer in Billingham, said: "I nearly got out of the game because I was a bit heavy, but Denys got me going again.

"He won a National, won a Lincoln, and won so many other good races during such a long career.

The Northern Echo:

Trainers Denys Smith, left, and Rhona Oliver bury a time capsule at Catterick racecourse in 2000. Photo: Ian Lamming

"Flat or jumps, it didn't matter to Denys. He was really ahead of his time in that respect.

"We travelled a lot of miles together. He used to drive me to the races and I used to drive him back.

The Northern Echo:

The sign outside the Red Alligator pub in 2006. Photo: Andy Lamb

"We got on very well and won some nice races, including the Triumph Hurdle Trial (Cheltenham) with The Grey Bomber and the Greenall (Haydock) with Midnight Love.

"Denys was in a care home until recently, but his mind was still as sharp as a razor.

"I wouldn't be where I was now if it wasn't for Denys Smith."

People who knew Denys have been paying tribute on Facebook.

Russell Dent wrote: "What a gent he was, trained the Red Alligator for relatives of mine.
"Many a grand night in the Red Alligator when Eileen and I had the pub. He was good company always. I still remember him and his friends eating in the pub on a Saturday night, enjoying a few drinks with his wife Jean and his pals.

"I will miss him. Condolences to his family at this time. R.I.P Denys."

Emily Spowart wrote: "R.I.P Denys. My dad, Billy Spowart, worked for him from leaving school in the 60s. He was a lovely gentleman."

Raymond Crawford wrote: "Very sad news. Always came in to Cree lodge when Ayr races was on. R.I.P Denys Smith."

Anthony Bell wrote: "Local legend. Lived just over the railway line from his stables and backed Red Alligator as a kid. RIP Denys."