‘Former Hawk makes his mark on Sydney racing scene…’ by KB Hill

Matthew Smith can almost sniff the smell of the liniment as he describes the pre-match ritual….He’d be nervously flipping the Sherrin around the rooms…..egging on his young team-mates with the usual jibberish………..visualising crashing through packs and booting near-impossible goals………..


He’s re-living his early football days……….It’s a long way from the W. J. Findlay Oval to the leafy surrounds and rustic ambience of Warwick Farm, where he now matches wits with the elite of Sydney racing.


I’ve caught up with him to share the roller-coaster ride of a fascinating sporting journey……..




Like most sports-mad kids from country Victoria, Matt was raised on a diet of Aussie Rules. He went to Galen College and played his early footy with Junior Magpies. Who better to guide him than one of the game’s characters, the late Ron Wales.


“ ‘Walesy’ was more than a coach; he was a father-figure; a terrific bloke…..I was really disappointed I couldn’t make it back to the reunion they held in his honour a couple of years ago,” he says.


One of Matt’s team-mates – and good friends – at Junior Magpies was Robbie Walker. They moved to the Rovers Thirds in the mid-eighties, just as an extraordinarily talented batch of youngsters were being blooded.


“Robbie, Matt Allen, Nick Goodear and Rick Marklew soon graduated to the seniors; then a few others, like Howard Yelland, the Wilson brothers, Paul Grenfell, Scott Williamson, ‘Chuck’ O’Connor and Robbie Hickmott began to make their mark……..”


“In fact, those kids formed the nucleus of the great Rovers teams of the late-80s and early 90s……..As you know, some of them became Club legends…….”


Matt was a member of Daryl Smith’s 1985 Thirds premiership team which rolled Wodonga. He took over the captaincy mid-way through the following year,as the Hawks reached another Grand Final under the coaching of Rex Allen.


“Wodonga belted us early; we held ‘em in the last half, but couldn’t claw the lead back,” he says.


He was named the Rovers’ best player in the six-goal defeat……….It was to be his last game in Brown and Gold.


A healthy number of his team-mates graduated to senior ranks, but one of the more unique pieces of sporting trivia is that in Matthew Smith and Robbie Hickmott the side also produced two Group One-winning racehorse trainers…………


Wangaratta Rovers Thirds Grand Final side 1986. Robbie Hickmott is at left.
Matthew Smith is holding the ball (at right)




By now footy had begun to take a back seat in Matt’s sporting priorities.


His father Chris, a well-known local fuel distributor, raced a few horses with prominent trainer Dennis Gray, and was a committeeman and President of Wangaratta Turf Club for several years.


“I started going to meetings around the area with Dad; to places like Corowa, Benalla, Wodonga, Deniliquin……….I loved the atmosphere, and closely studied the horses…..It prompted me to dream of some sort of involvement in racing,” he says.


But firstly, he moved to the city to begin an apprenticeship with OPSM in Chadstone (also playing a season of Amateur footy with Prahran), before being transferred back to Wangaratta.


“I knew by now though, that my heart was in the racing game, so I teed up a month or so’s work with John Sadler’s training enterprise in Flemington……..He wouldn’t have even known I was there, I reckon, but I loved the experience…….It made me want to pursue a career in the industry…..”


To satisfy his urge he decided to embark on a working holiday, to England and Ireland. Initially, he found a job with Specsavers but he knew that if he wanted to satisfy his ambition to become involved with any of the leading British trainers he needed to learn to ride trackwork.


“I had some friends who had eventing horses……Through my association with them I did a fair bit of riding……enough to enable me to ride my share of work……”


“That gave me the confidence to land a job with an Irish Trainer, Pat O’Donnell, who was predominantly involved with Jumps horses…….I did a bit of everything for about eight months….In the Yard….. Road-Work…..Putting the horses over the Jumps….that sort of stuff.”


Matt first came across famous Irish Trainer Aidan O’Brien when he sought a job at Ballydoyle in county Tipperary, regarded as the world’s finest horse-training complex, and owned by Irish magnate John Magnier.


Aidan had recently quit his career as a National Hunt trainer/ rider to become Coolmore’s head trainer.


“He was predominantly a Jumps Trainer at this stage, and shared a Yard at Piltown, in Kilkenny, with his Father-in-Law Joe Crowley. All of the horses were in Aidan’s name, even though he and Joe shared a training partnership.”


“So he sent me up there to assist with breaking-in and educating the young horses for a couple of months.”


“But I was grateful to get back to Ballymore. Even though I enjoyed working with the Jumpers at Piltown, I was really more interested in flat racing…..I spent the next two years there. ”


“It was a great experience……Aidan’s a similar age to me; a brilliant operator and couldn’t have been more supportive. I really enjoyed my time in Ireland and he and his wife Anne-Marie were unbelievable……In fact, their daughter Sarah is now doing my Veterinary work at Warwick Farm…..”




Word-of-mouth got around that Matt was ready to spread his wings and was keen to study the American racing scene.


“I wanted to take the opportunity to see what they do over there whilst I was overseas…Just to gain some more experience, basically,” he says.


He received a good reference from Ballydoyle and was lucky enough to land a job with Irish-born trainer Niall O’Callaghan who ran a large operation at Churchill Downs, Kentucky.


“Again, I was so fortunate to learn from such a professional as Niall. It was completely different to the Irish and English systems…….”


Matt says he intended to return to Australia at some stage in the near future, but the timing of a phone call he received worked out perfectly:


“Bart Cummings was attending a Yearling Parade at Coolmore’s Home of Racing, at Jerry’s Plains,” he says.


“He just happened to mention to a few people: ‘I’m looking for a Stable Foreman….Do you know anyone who might be appropriate for the job ?’ “


“The boys at Coolmore said: ‘Oh, Matt Smith’s one bloke who could be interested. He’s worked for Ballydoyle and he’s been in America for a couple of years…..You should give him a call….”


“One of his office-staff rang out of the blue one day…I thought it was a mate taking the piss out of me. Then Bart gave me a follow-up call and I accepted the job……It couldn’t have worked out better…”


He spent five years with Bart and says that, like Aidan O’Brien, he couldn’t have found a better boss:


“Hard but fair…….You weren’t there to muck around…..He didn’t readily dish out advice……unless you asked…….He had a great work ethic and a methodical approach……”




Matt was working with Bart Cummings when he met his now-wife Melissa, who was employed by Wm. Inglis & Sons. They’ve proved a formidable combination.




“She’s amazing…. She’s an experienced horse person and was riding at a very early age……I probably wouldn’t be training if it wasn’t for her….Melissa’s a great support to me in training, as well as being a terrific mum to our two kids…..”


His first winner, after taking the plunge, and obtaining his Trainer’s licence, was Adventurous Rose, which saluted in February 2003.




The maiden Group 2 win came in 2008, when Krupt won the Todman Stakes. High hopes were held for the colt, but he went amiss shortly after and had to be retired.


He’ll always remember his first Group 1 winner in 2011, when Hurtle Myrtle swept down the middle of the track to win the Myer Classic at Flemington.


But undoubtedly the stable star has been Japanese-bred Fierce Impact, which won five races, for a total of $3.3 million.


His wins included three Group 1s over 1600 metres – the 2019 Toorak Handicap; the Kennedy Cantala Stakes of 2019; and the 2020 Makybe Diva Stakes…….He was retired to stud in March last year.




Matt says the last two seasons have produced the stable’s best results. Stake-money has totalled $3.9 and $3.5 million respectively.


“We were struggling slightly, prior to 2015/16…….maybe we didn’t have the horses, but when you analyse it the results were slowly improving…..”


“Then we picked up $1 million in prize-money in 15/16 ; and it’s gone up every year since then……… the number of runners has increased in five years, from 155 to 540 runners last season.”


“Accordingly, it’s only in the last five or so years that I’ve become well-established as a metropolitan trainer,” he explains………“It’s a really tough game, to be honest with you, and you’ve got to stick at it. It doesn’t take much to drop off the perch…..”




His stats, prior to Christmas, showed that the stable had produced 496 winners and 999 placings from 4,208 starts.


“Matt and Melissa bought a property at Luskin Park, in the Lower Hunter Valley, in 2021. It was already set up for spelling and they’ve just started to convert it into a Pre-Training Centre.


As a reminder of his experience with jumps horses in Ireland all those years ago, he had his first runner over Hurdles at Warrnambool last year.


“With a bit of luck I might have a few more jumpers in 2022,” he says.




One of Matt’s footy contemporaries recently pointed out what a unique achievement it’d be if he happened to emulate the feat of his old Rovers Thirds team-mate ‘Hicky’, and train a Melbourne Cup winner……


“I tell you what” he says “……….If it happens, the first thing I’ll do is bring the Cup back to Wang, plant it on the Bar of the Pinno and celebrate like there’s no tomorrow………”


This story appeared first on KB Hill’s website On Reflection and is used here with permission. All photos sourced from KB Hill’s resources unless otherwise acknowledged.


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