FRANKLIN, Ky. (Sept. 20, 2016) — Frank Smothers is the state’s oldest racing official, last week completing yet another meet as Kentucky Downs’ jockeys’ room custodian. He’s not the guy sweeping the floor, but custodian in its broader sense of being a guardian or protector, overseeing the jockeys and valets.
Smothers, who has been in horse racing since 1943, also turned 90 years old during the Kentucky Downs’ meet, a proud veteran of World War II and Korea.
He has been the jocks’ room custodian every meet since 1994, with Kentucky Downs shuttered for two years in the late 1990s. Now, it’s a closing-day rite when Kentucky Downs’ officials ask, “You are coming back next year, right, Frank?” And Smothers responds, “The good Lord willing.”
“Everybody here loves Mr. Frank,” said Ann McGovern, the veteran racetrack executive whose title for Kentucky Downs’ live meet could be director of details. “Every year we want him to know we want him back. Besides being great at what he does, he’s a mature presence in a room of young athletes and a stabilizing influence and a good influence. We love having him here.”
Smothers is easy to spot in Kentucky Downs’ jockeys quarters, making sure everything stays on time, including valets saddling horses and jockeys getting to the paddock. He’s the diminutive guy, not surprising given that he’s a former jockey, who unfailingly wears a ball cap marking him as veteran of the two wars.
There have been racing officials work into their 80s. But it’s hard to come up with another official who was 90. “I don’t take any medicine, only four vitamins,” Smothers says.
Smothers also was a fixture on the Southern California racing circuit, spending three decades as the custodian of the racing silks — the “color man” who ensures jockeys are wearing the correct owners’ silks in each race.
“It’s really a pleasure. I get enjoyment out of it because I keep running into people I’ve known for years. Eddie Delahoussaye stopped in the other day and they asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’” Smothers said, referring to the retired Hall of Fame jockey who won two Kentucky Derbys. “He said, ‘I’m going to the Keeneland sales, but I’ve got to stop by to see this man.’ And he points his finger at me.
“It’s not a job. It’s not the money. It’s just the idea that I’m back in the jocks’ room. I even saw (trainer) Neil Drysdale, whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years. I said, ‘You don’t remember me.’ He said, ‘Yes I do. How can you forgot you?’”
Smothers has been the jocks’ room custodian since Kentucky Downs’ early years. He works closely with the clerk of scales to make sure the jockeys and their valets adhere to schedule. Valets in essence are the racetrack butlers to the riders, making sure their riders have the right saddle and proper saddle pad to make the correct race weight, taking care of the jockeys’ tack and laundry needs and keeping all their equipment and supplies stocked and organized.
“I’m doing something that keeps racing going,” said Smothers, who lives in Bowling Green, Ky. “If they didn’t have anyone in the jockeys’ room, what would all the jocks do? They’d probably have to get dressed in their cars. I mean, I’m part of racing that my job is needed. There’s one at every racetrack in America.
“I do not use my authority to bother anybody. But, don’t cross Frank. Because you are in trouble. But you do everything right, he’s the best guy on your side…. When I was a wee guy, my grandfather told me, ‘My boy, whatever you grow up to do or whatever jobs you get, be at your best doing it.’”
The valets call Smothers “Sarge,” only partly in deference to his Army rank.
“He barks at us a lot,” said veteran valet Ronnie Shelton of Louisville. “It’s all timing: be in, be out, pay attention to what you’re doing. He just keeps us steered in the right direction. I like working with him. He’s a character. I hope I’m at least straight up and know who I am when I’m that old.”
Joe York is another long-time valet who also serves as jocks’ room custodian at Ellis Park. “He’s all military, ‘Hut one, two, three, four,’” he said. “Good guy, though. He’ll get on us, now. For a man going on 90, he’s as spry as a guy who’s 40.”
Smothers grew up on a cattle farm in eastern Washington. At age 15 and with his dad writing a letter to say his son was 16, Smothers tried to enlist in the Navy to fight in World War II. But he couldn’t fudge the scale: 89 pounds and 4-foot-10. They told him to go home, eat lots of bananas and drink lots of milk and come back in a year.
Immediately afterward, a man approached and said, “How would you like to be a jockey?”’
“I said, ‘Who?” Smothers recalled. “‘What do they do? ‘They ride horses.’ I said, ‘I’ve been riding horses all my life, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘You ride them in races and for money.’”
The man turned out to be the brother of jockey Albert Johnson, who had won the Kentucky Derby with Morvich in 1922 and Bubbling Over four years later. The Johnsons also were from rural Washington.
“He was looking for all the little guys they could train to be a jockey, because all the other ones were enlisting in the service,” Smothers said. “So every little guy who was rejected, he was waiting to see if they were interested.”
He ultimately hooked up with Kentucky-based trainer J.P. Watts, earning his first victory in Detroit and heading to Florida with the barn when Smothers got his draft notice.
“I said, ‘You wouldn’t take me when I wanted to volunteer, but now that we’re losing, you want me,’” Smothers said in his good-natured way.
In the Army, Smothers served in the Philippines and Okinawa as a combat engineer and upon his return in 1946 stayed in the active Reserves. The Korean conflict wasn’t even a week old went he was sent over there, he said. Between the wars, Smothers went back and forth to Watts’ Midwest stable as a jockey and assistant trainer while also riding thoroughbred and quarter-horse races in the Northwest. But having contracted Malaria overseas, he had trouble reducing to make weight.
Smothers was at the old Tanforan Racetrack near San Francisco in 1962 when a pal told him, “I’ve got a job for you. You’re going to make more money than trying to ride.” And Smothers became the new color man, a post that ultimately became year-round in Southern California until he retired in 1990 at 65.
He and his beloved late wife, Runelle, moved back to her home region in 1992 and located in Bowling Green, where their daughter, Rachelle, was a senior at Western Kentucky University.
Smothers said he read in the newspaper in 1993 where Dueling Grounds, as Kentucky Downs was then called, was running and headed by Dr. Arnold Pessin. “I said, ‘Well, I know him,’” he said. “So Runelle and I drove down here. He said, ‘What are you doing back here?’”
Pessin had already filled all his spots for the upcoming meet but told Smothers to come back the next year. “They’ve had three or four different owners, and every one of them wants me back the next year,” he said.
When Smothers got in racing, maidens were going for $2,500 — “and glad to get it” — compared to Kentucky Downs’ record purses of $130,000. “I look at them purses and I can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s unreal.”
How long does he think he’ll be the sergeant of the jocks’ room?
“Until the good Lord says to come on home, I guess,” Smothers said. “Unless they get tired of me. Every year they say, ‘Are you coming back?’ ‘Do you want me back?’ ‘Yes we do. You’re a fixture here.’”