Stopping at the Elloree Training Center office in search of the boss ranks high on the list of ways to waste time. Goree Smith will not be there.
Oh, he won’t be too far away. First, check one of the barns that dot the 400-acre spread and house 160 or more horses. Not there? Look over at the three-quarter mile track; he might be watching some of the colts on a morning gallop. No luck? Try the starting gate where a handful of young want-to-be thoroughbred racing winners learn another lesson.
Yes, he’s here, there and everywhere this time of the year, working his magic in developing 2-year-old colts and fillies for racing. This has been his life for almost 40 years, and he never tires of the seven-day-a-week challenges.
“The horses keep you moving,” trainer Smith, 68, said.
Here at his proving grounds near Elloree, he watches the maturation process. Some will learn quickly and ship to race-track trainers. Others will be here longer. One might be another Demons Begone, who began his racing life here and went to the post favored in the 1987 Kentucky Derby. One might be another Dullahan, who left here this time last year and ranks among the top contenders for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
“They start separating themselves about this time of the year,” Smith said. “The important thing is to pay attention and don’t let them go too fast too soon. You see the real good ones from Day One if you do this long enough, but you don’t want to let them do too much before they’re ready.”
Some will be ready Saturday for the golden anniversary of the Elloree Trials, a community-wide event started by the Jaycees in 1963. The event features a full day of racing with sideshows that include sky-diving, hat contest and tail-gate contests and the crowning of Miss Elloree Trials.
But most days are quiet with Smith and his staff of about 30 going about the business of building a solid foundation for each horse.
“The real satisfaction comes from seeing how they change from when they get here (at about 1½ years old) to when they leave (six to eight months later),” he said. “What we do here is those things that seem unexciting but are extremely important. Places like ours and others around the state are where racing really starts.”
The Trials provide an outlet to evaluate horses in front of a crowd “and that’s part of their development,” Smith said. “We want to bring out the best in each horse, and this is one of the pieces of the puzzle.
“Our goal is to create a race-track atmosphere in training. We try to let the horses know what to expect when they go to the races. Over the time they’re here, you get a pretty good idea of what their potential and value will be. We have to be honest with the owners, but I appreciate every horse we have here. We want to bring out the best in each one.”
In past years, Smith would have about 200 horses each winter. The recession cut that number, but he sees the industry coming back with the improving economy, and this year’s mild winter created the opportunity for quicker development.
On a recent day, Smith worked some horses in the starting gate, getting them used to walking in, standing still and having handlers climb around them.
“Things like having (a handler) over their heads ... they aren’t used to that and we have to establish a habit,” Smith said. “After a while, it becomes ho-hum to them, but it’s all part of the learning process. It’s really amazing how a horse can be standing there, then when the gate flies open, the energy just explodes. It’s awesome.”
He calls his life awesome, too, saying, “I can still run with these boys.”
He grew up with his family in nearby Lone Star, and his dad, a farmer, did a little bit of racing. His older brother, John Edward Smith, rode in the races until he got too big and took over the horses. Eventually, the horses became Goree’s, who said, “I have enjoyed every minute of it. I don’t look at it as work.”
He became so proficient so quickly that he does not have to advertise.
“It’s really satisfying to see a horse leave here and go on to good things on the race track,” Smith said. “But so many things can go wrong. We had a colt here last year, O’Prado Again, who won some big 2-year-old races and would have been a Derby candidate, but he had an injury and they had to take him off the Derby Trail.
“The thing is, there are so many more races than the (Kentucky) Derby. Some are big, some small, but they’re all important to the people involved. What I like is this is where (racing) starts for the colts and fillies. Watching them develop and then following them through their careers . . . that’s the beauty of it. It never gets old.”