Charlie Smith, an American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame member and one of the legendary jockeys in the sports’ history, died on Monday morning. A leader in the jockey’s room among his peers and a leading rider at Los Alamitos 11 times, Smith won 841 races in his career at the Orange County oval. The figure ranks him 20th in the all-time list at Los Alamitos. He also won 51 stakes races in his career.
Born in 1929, Smith is remembered as the only jockey to ever ride world champion Jet Deck, a stallion who won 14 stakes races and broke six track records. Smith piloted Jet Deck to win the 1962 Kindergarten Futurity. Jet Deck was not his only famous stakes winner. Smith also won the first ever running of the Los Alamitos Championship aboard Pap in the spring of 1961. The jockey enjoyed four Los Alamitos Derby wins over a six year span starting with Jet Deck’s win in 1963 and followed by Goetta’s win in 1964. He won the Los Alamitos Derby again in 1967 and ’68 with Toy Spur and Truly Night. Smith won stakes races with the likes of Lanty’s Jet and Tiny Watch. He piloted Mr. Jet Moore to victory in the 1972 Go Man Go Handicap.
“Choo Choo Charley”, as he was affectionately known, won seven straight riding titles at Los Al between the spring and fall meets starting with the 1961 fall meet and ending with the 1965 fall meet. After missing out on the riding crowns in the spring of 1966, Smith picked up four more titles by winning in the fall of 1967, both meet titles in 1968, and the spring crown in 1969.
Smith was the bridge as the champion jockey at Los Alamitos that connected the 1950s champs like Henry Page, Efrain Garza, Donald Allison, Clifford Lambert, and Kenny Chapman with the 1970s dominance of Bobby Adair and later Danny Cardoza. Smith was an eight-time national champion.
Smith helped build Los Alamitos, literally. He was the track superintendent at Los Alamitos in the 1970s and 80s, knocking down walls, building barns, snack bars, parimutuel windows, and ramps. He replaced the molding and acoustic ceiling tiles in the then banquet room. He was also wise with his money. Charlie was one of the founders of the Bank of Westminster, owned multiple properties in California and owned property in his home state of Oklahoma. Natural gas was discovered on one of the parcels in his property according to a 1989 LA Times article written by Steve Lowery.
Charlie loved to work. He worked in his father’s farm in Oklahoma and was the grocery deliver boy at his family’s market. He has worked in glass factories, saw mills and ammunition dumps. He was an expert mechanic. He was quoted by Lowerly that he didn’t care about being famous.
“I just want the money,” he said.
Smith started riding as a young man. Charlie and his wife, Doris, lived near McAlester, Oklahoma. Smith worked at a local military post at the time. Someone spotted him on a horse and suggested to Charlie that he should ride in the local races. Charlie won and made $5 for winning a $500 race. It was the start of a great career.
Charlie would go on to ride at licensed tracks in Denver, where he would pocket $7 for winning a $70 race. He rode in Jacksonville and St. Augustine, Florida and later made his way to California. He piloted horses at Los Alamitos for the first time in 1959 and he would remain at the track as one of its most successful riders ever until retiring in 1974.
"I knew how to judge a horse," Smith to the LA Times. "I could tell if a horse could run by the feel of him. And I never believed anyone could run a horse faster than I could. It was my business, I knew every horse on the track when I was riding. I made sure that if my horse lost, it wouldn't be because of me."
Don Guerro was one of the final horses that Smith rode to victory during that 1974 campaign. The owner of the horse was actor Robert Mitchum, who pleaded with Smith to wait on his retirement so that he could ride Don Guerro once more. But Smith was done. Adair got the mount on Don Guerro and he would pilot the Dan Francisco-trained horse to victory in that year’s Champion of Champions.
Charlie didn’t lose any sleep over it. He was happy to begin the next phase of his life, back to being a carpenter, mechanic and everything else that involved work, especially at his beloved Los Alamitos Race Course.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I never really gambled much. I was raised up in Oklahoma, 35 miles from the highway. Nobody had any money. I had to quit school to feed the cattle. I was the only kid in my family who didn’t get an education. To come out of there and make the money that I did, well, I’m not bragging, but I’m set. For somebody who didn’t get an education, I did pretty good. And it’s because of racehorses. Without racing, I’d be a carpenter in Tulsa. I invested in some things that made me a little money, but it’s racehorses that did it for me.”
Charlie never stopped visiting the Los Alamitos. He was in the winner’s circle to present the trophy for the 2014 Go Man Go Handicap along with his good friend, Robert Strauss. And a few days prior to his passing, Charlie called the track’s administration office asking if they could save him a 2016 racing calendar. Los Alamitos Race Course was always on his mind.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
To read the full Los Angeles Time article about Charlie Smith’s life and times go to: http://articles.latimes.com/1989-06-22/sports/sp-3187_1_horses-los-alamitos-riding.