Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Laying down the law

Texas-based trainer, owner a winning combination at the Downs

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Left to right: owner Terry Propps, Lola, trainer Charlie Smith, Maddy, and groom Vaughan Taylor with Graduation Stakes winner Spider's Alibi.

GEORGE WILLIAMS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Left to right: owner Terry Propps, Lola, trainer Charlie Smith, Maddy, and groom Vaughan Taylor with Graduation Stakes winner Spider's Alibi. Photo Store

Graduation Stakes winner Spider's Alibi didn't win the Osiris Stakes on Wednesday night for owner Terry Propps and trainer Charlie Smith, but he did finish a good rallying second and you got the impression he would keep coming until he got you.

Like his trainer.

Baseball cap on backwards, grey hair flowing, Smith was doing his shedrow-raking impression of an old groom named "Razorback" from the Woody Stephens era when his stakes-winner Portales put her head over my shoulder, nuzzled my face and told me there was a lot more to this story.

There was.

The "Razorback" reference definitely fit since Smith graduated with a law degree from the University of Arkansas. And he's certainly proven his worth with horses.

The 61-year-old lawyer from Annetta, Texas has saddled 298 winners who have earned $3,365,233 in purses, much of it for partner and owner Terry Propps at Assiniboia Downs, courtesy of stakes winners that include Miss Missile, Portales, Lady Countdown, Morsel, Ruby's Big Band, Little Widow Maker, Gospel Gal and now Spider's Alibi.

After listening to Smith's story, you might get the feeling his makeup included a smattering of grizzled street fighter Wade Garrett (played by Sam Elliot) in Roadhouse and Erin Brockovich, who took on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California and won in 1993.

Not someone to be messed with.

Smith grew up in north-central Texas on acreage with cows and saddle ponies. He fell in love with horse racing while going to law school and venturing to Hot Springs to watch the races on the weekends. He graduated with a law degree in 1974, first dabbled with his own thoroughbreds in the early '80s, and took out his trainer's license in the late '80s.

"I did OK," said Smith. "But nothing like I do now. And that's because of Terry. I met her 16 years ago on an unrelated legal matter and she's made all the difference. She selects all the horses and does all the mating. She knows bloodlines and she has a good eye for a horse. We'll select 30 to 50 horses to look at in a sale and if one of us says no, we don't buy. She falls asleep at night reading pedigree books, while I'm reading a western. And it's her nutrition program. I just try to pay attention to detail, make sure they get a good start, and have a regular exercise program."

"Time, time, time," added Propps. "Paper only takes them so far and then it's up to us to get them to the next stage."

Propps grew up in Pacos, Texas. Her grandfather, "Tige" Henderson, was an "old west Texas cowboy" and her mom, Dorothy, was a trick rider, parade queen and barrel racer at rodeos. She first learned how to ride bareback, "because I had to be able to get back on if no one was there," and also did some barrel racing as a youngster.

The couple has 34 horses on their farm in Texas, in a mix that includes 12 broodmares along with weanlings, yearlings and two-year-olds. When the horses are finished with their racing careers they are either pensioned on their own farm or found good homes.

"They have to be somebody's baby or we keep them," said Propps. "We want them to have a good life."

The whole operation appears to be a family affair. Grandchildren Maddy (12) and Lola (3) were at the barn and blended right in, which is also part of the reason Smith and Propps race their horses in Winnipeg.

"Children are accepted here and are allowed to enjoy the races," said Smith "Assiniboia Downs is family friendly and the kids are big fans of Barry's Kitchen. We've made a lot of friends here. Sure it's competitive, but if someone is down on their luck, everyone in the backstretch community is there for them."

"We also have to thank trainer Rob Atras. He's been a big help. It's a pleasure to come up north and he has everything set up for us. Alexis Batista is one of the best young riders I've seen in a long time and groom Vaughan Taylor has made a big difference in our horses. Grooms are so important. We take care of our horses, but good grooms make a huge difference."

In 2001, Smith, along with fellow defence lawyer Bill Lane and independent civil lawyers Jeff Kobs and Ron Hundley, took on a David vs. Goliath legal case, when they represented a family that sued Correctional Services Corporation over the wrongful death of 18-year-old Bryan Dale Alexander in a Texas boot camp facility. The lawsuit also involved challenging the immunity laws regarding judges in the state of Texas. Smith and his partners were given absolutely no shot at winning the case, which often took on Brockovich-esque tones.

"(The defendants) made the mistake of thinking it was all about the money," said Propps.

"There was one particularly tough day, "said Smith." When Bill and I were sitting there and he referred to us as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, getting ready to make one last big run at it."

Smith's team won.

The judge awarded $35 million in actual damages to the family, $750,000 in punitive damages and more than $2.4 million in interest.

Now you know why their horses run the way they do.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2014 C7

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