Tyler Smith turns 21 today, but he’s already spent a lifetime in the sulky. And before he was old enough to legally drink a toast, he already had plenty to celebrate.
With a boyish blond beard that’s more peach fuzz than whiskers, Smith looks every part his nickname: The Kid.
“I’ve been around horses and racing all my life,” Smith said. “My father (Jeff Smith) is a driver-trainer; he has 40 horses right now. My whole family is in it.”
In 2013, Smith became the youngest driver in harness racing history to surpass 1,000 victories. On Friday night at Cal Expo, he’ll compete in his 8,000th professional race.
“I’ve been lucky enough to hook up with good trainers and drive lots of good horses,” he said. “I like winning; everybody does. It’s a big adrenaline rush.”
He also enjoys the challenge. “Any driver can get a good horse to win; it’s the others,” Smith said. “If you can get them across (the wire first), that’s something.”
Smith also has proven he’s willing to go the extra distance for his sport – including a 4,000-mile weekly round-trip commute.
In search of more rides, Smith commutes from his home in Ohio to drive trotters and pacers on Cal Expo’s one-mile oval. Cal Expo is one of only a handful of one-mile tracks in the nation that host harness racing. It’s great experience to prepare for the sport’s marquee venues – The Meadowlands in New Jersey, Kentucky’s Red Mile and Illinois’ Balmoral Park. All use one-mile tracks and are part of harness racing’s big-league Grand Circuit.
“That’s my goal: To be driving the Grand Circuit in five years,” Smith said. “I like driving on a big track a lot better.”
Smith competes Fridays and Saturdays in Sacramento, then flies home Sundays to Columbus, Ohio. Mondays through Thursdays, he drives at Northfield Park – a half-mile track – near Cleveland. Friday morning, he’s back on a plane.
“I’ve got the flight schedule memorized,” he said.
During a typical week, he’ll drive about 125 horses. He has them memorized, too. His favorite at Cal Expo is Articulate, who he won with last weekend. In the Midwest, he’s partial to Betterluvnexttime. “She won 17 out of 30 invitationals for me, including eight in a row,” Smith said.
The cold weather in Cleveland prompted Smith to give California a try.
“In Cleveland, it’s a half-mile track, 30 degrees – or colder – with snow blowing,” he said. “Here, it’s almost 70 degrees (during the day) and I don’t mind that it’s not raining.”
As a toddler, Smith started riding with his father in a jog cart and hanging out with horses. By grade school, he was taking the reins. At 12, he started driving in matinee races at county fairs – not for money but extra hours on the racetrack.
“The day after my 16th birthday, I got my license,” he said. “I could turn pro because I had so many drives already.”
Smith’s early success has attracted national attention. Since turning pro, he’s won more than 1,200 races and $7.8 million; traditionally, drivers earn about 10 percent of purses won.
Trainer Bob Johnson gets credit for attracting Smith to Sacramento during Hoosier Park’s offseason. The Indiana track goes dark during winter.
“I raced in Indiana last summer and Tyler was the top driver at Hoosier Park,” Johnson said. “I mentioned to him, ‘Maybe you’d like to come out to California.’ He said, ‘I’ll think about it.’ Next thing I know, here he is.”
Said Smith: “We were just messing around, talking about California, but that got me thinking. I talked to my dad; he agreed it was a good idea. ... Bobby gave me a great opportunity.”
Smith offered plenty to like, Johnson said. “He’s young and aggressive. He’s a good driver with a good head on his shoulders. It’s good experience for him, driving different tracks. He could be one of the top drivers around here.”
Cal Expo doesn’t offer as much purse money as tracks such as Hoosier Park, where casino gambling helps support racing. But since Watch & Wager took over Sacramento’s harness meet, Cal Expo’s wagering has steadily increased. In 2013, handle was up 14.1 percent from 2012 to an average of almost $763,000 a night.
“When Tyler said he was thinking of coming to Cal Expo, I told him, ‘You’re not going to make a whole lot of money,’ ” said Chris Schick, the meet’s general manager. “But he said it wasn’t about the money; it’s about experience. What really impressed me, he has such a memory. He’s driving hundreds of horses, but he remembers each one, all their little quirks. He brings that knowledge to every race.”
So far, Smith is winning enough to finance his cross-country education. But his sojourns to Sacramento won’t be forever.
“I plan to drive the whole season at Hoosier Park and they start back up in March,” he said. “But if things work out, I would like to race here more. I love it right here.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.