“He’s still the best horse I’ve seen”
WITH A one-off return to South Australia’s ‘circle of light’ Wayville, scheduled for Friday, October 27 this year, talk of the stars who graced the track come up – with Minor Derby rated as the greatest of them all.
Octogenarian trainer-driver Alan Smith is a living link to the champion.
As a 12-year-old, Smith drove Minor Derby in trackwork for his father Frank, the horse’s trainer.
“Obviously I was too young to drive in races but Dad was happy for me to work him,” Smith said.
“He wasn’t the flashiest track worker, but come race day and he was in a class of his own.
“He is still the best horse I’ve seen.”
Minor Derby’s legend evolved as he repeatedly came off big handicaps to beat the best horses in South Australia.
However, he was a barrier rogue and never stepped away safely, giving his rivals a start, often twice as much as his handicap.
. . . And the patrons loved him.
Smith said Mr Radloff, secretary of the South Australian Harness Racing Club, said they had to print 500 extra racebooks when Minor Derby raced as he always attracted extra people to the already big crowds of in excess of 10,000.
Minor Derby became the first horse to win successive South Australian Cups when successful in 1950 coming off a 36-yard handicap, then again in 1951 when off 60 yards.
Big handicaps were nothing to Minor Derby – he came off 36 yards to win the 1951 Kapunda Cup, and off 72 yards to take out the 1952 ANA Cup at Wayville.
He won a heat of the 1952 Inter Dominion at Harold Park setting a then track record for 15-1/2 furlongs of 2:07.8 but wasn’t at his best in the Grand Final, finishing last.
In 1953, he ran second to Avondale in an Inter Dominion Consolation at Gloucester Park in Perth.
Smith said Minor Derby wasn’t a big horse, and was very quiet around the stable.
“I remember Dad said when he was first being broken in, others were having trouble getting him to pace. He was leased out by his owner John Smith (no relation), but only on the condition he was given to Dad to train.
“At the time, we were living in Port Pirie but when he came to us, Dad got him going.
“We actually trained on a very small track and he had no trouble handling the corners.
“Actually, I believe that helped at Wayville because it was on the corners where he continually made up a lot of ground – that was his secret to catching fields.”
Once Frank Smith caught the field on Minor Derby he just kept going and charged around the outside to outstay his rivals.
“He was tough,” Smith said, “just so tough.”
Smith, who still trains and drives, shares the record of being the oldest reinsman in Australia, at 81, to drive a winner at a TAB meeting.
He shares that record with Ken Parker from Queensland, but is the winningest 81-year-old, as he has done it twice, both on The Dutchman, this year.
“When he moved to Adelaide, we actually worked horses around the outside of Woodville Oval,” Smith said.
“I drove Minor Derby around Woodville Oval.”
Smith said he would be attending the Wayville meeting in October, “to have a look.”
“We had fields of 21 in the old days, and without too much interference.
“We had great horsemen driving – the Websters, Gaths, Shinns, Tom Butterworth and Ron Arthur – and because we raced there regularly horses were used to the small track.
“I hope the horses which race in October have a trial or two because they will find the corners so much sharper than they have experienced.
“Wayville was an exciting place to drive with the crowds being all around the track.
“If you didn’t drive one too well the crowd in the back straight would give you a bit of taffy as you pulled up.”