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Smith Lilly - People’s Choice Trainer of the Year


by Ann Bullard


In the show horse world, there’s little better than hearing the cheers of the Louisville crowd when your horse is called out as a world’s champion. Their standing ovation for your victory pass ranks up there with it. Smith Lilly of Mercer Springs Farm and He’s The Man received such accolades twice this past year. Your votes for them as Trainer and Overall Five-Gaited Horse and Gelding of the Year added an exclamation point to their outstanding season.


He’s The Man is one of three horses Lilly rode to world’s championships in 2006. He exited Freedom Hall with blue ribbon in hand after Platinum’s New Look was called as the Junior Five-Gaited Gelding World’s Champion, despite the horse having thrown a shoe near the end of the class. He drove Mother Mary to the Junior Fine Harness Mares World’s Championship.


He was the first of the young trainers group to win the ‘big stake.’ At age 36, he had achieved what many others dream of all their lives.


One might say Lilly had little choice about being involved in the Saddle Horse world. His Saddlebred roots go back at least five generations. As his mother, Sandy, put it in an earlier Horse World interview, “My family tree traces back to Robert E. Lee. We all know what kind of horse he rode.”


Sandy established a training operation in West Virginia shortly after she and her husband, Tom, returned to their home state following the Vietnam War. Lilly was always in tow. He started attending Lexington Junior League when he was two years old.


Lilly rode with his mother and grandfather, the late Ira Smith, through his school years. Ira Smith, an attorney, hurried home from work in the afternoon to join his daughter and grandson at the barn.


“He was training horses in the afternoons. That was very instructive for me,” his grandson said. “I wasn’t sure I wanted a desk job where I would think the whole time how I could get out of it and go work horses.”


Despite having horses at home, the young man’s focus was on other disciplines. He played varsity sports in high school but only special teams in football at Davidson College.


The summer after his freshman year, Lilly started his professional training. His first job outside of Mercer Springs Farm entailed exercising stallions, helping with the breeding program and with colts for Fred Sarver at Leatherwood Farm when it was in nearby Bluefield, W.Va. During his college years, he also rode colts for the late Larry Barbee. Of the 22 horses Barbee had in training, 20 were five-gaited.


In August 1982, Lilly made his first trip to the World’s Championship Horse Show. The last class of the show helped solidify his decision to join the ranks of professional horsemen. That class: the first duel between CH Sky Watch and CH Imperator.


After getting his degree in economics from Davidson, Lilly enrolled in his ‘post-graduate’ course in horsemanship. Determined to learn from the best, he first worked for Nelson Green and later in California for Mitchell Clark, trainer of Sky Watch. When Clark moved to Kentucky, Lilly came home to begin his career at Mercer Springs.


His first major successes came through showing futurity colts. Starmonious, a three-gaited gelding Mercer Springs Farm purchased in the early 1990s, helped the young trainer achieve recognition in the performance ranks.  In 1996, Lilly won his first Louisville performance ribbon since being a junior exhibitor, riding Starmonius to a yellow ribbon in the Junior Three-Gaited 15.2 and Under class.


A kick from a colt put Sandy Lilly on the sideline for months. Lilly stepped up to take over her responsibilities as well as his own. Among the youngsters he ‘inherited’ was Allison Combs and the three-gaited pony Snap Crackle Fox! As Combs’s riding skills grew, so did the ability of the horses she rode. CH Callaway’s Coraleen, CH French Silk Stockings and CH Just Special followed. She honed her skills with a gaited horse aboard Summitup in five-gaited pleasure. It was time for Combs to step up again.


In March of last year, Lilly, his wife, Alexandra, and Sandy Lilly brought Combs, her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Jimmie Shires, and parents, Gene and Lori Combs, to George Knight Stables to look at a five-gaited horse.  That horse: the five-year-old He’s The Man.


He’s The Man is exactly what Knight, his breeder and co-owner with the Jean McLean Davis Trust, bred him to be: a five-gaited champion. His sire, World’s Grand Champion CH Man On The Town won the Five-Gaited World’s Grand Championship in 1989 and ’90, and the junior title the year before. CH Yorktown, He’s The Man’s grandsire, was undefeated at Louisville, and won the Five-Gaited Grand Championship in 1970, ’71 and ’72.


His dam, Perfect, has no show record. By Supreme Sultan and out of the Oman’s Desdemona Denmark daughter, The Rose, she instead became a Hall of Fame Broodmare. The cross with Man On The Town proved a winner. World’s Champion CH City Lady, World’s Champion A Woman’s Touch and Another Man’s Treasure are full siblings.


Both his Broodmare Hall of Fame grand-dams won the Five-Gaited Mare Stake at Louisville. Knight showed The Rose in a class of 13 to win the mare title in 1983. The late Tom Moore rode CH Chantilly Rose to several world’s titles, beginning with the National Three-Year-Old Futurity in 1973. She won the mare stake as a junior horse in 1974 and was reserve in 1975.


The 16.2-hand gelding gets his size and build through his grandsire, Yorktown. Add to that the fire and stamina from the Oman’s Desdemona Denmark line and the beauty of Supreme Sultan. His not being a great horse would have been more surprising than the fact that he has become one.


He’s The Man already had proven he was well-named. Knight had ridden him to the Junior Five-Gaited Stallion and Gelding World’s Championship and Champion of Champions title in 2005. Although he had many offers, Knight had declined to sell the horse.


Combs spoke of that Kentucky trip. “I had seen He’s The Man show a few times but never really paid a whole lot of attention. I’d seen a few ads. When we went to look at him at George’s, what struck me was how powerful and neat he is, but still well mannered. He’s a calm horse to have so much power.


“He was four [by the calendar] when we tried him,” she continued. “It’s hard to describe what he felt like; it was like nothing I’d ever ridden before. He loved to slow gait; that’s always fun,” she said.


“He’s like all my horses rolled into one,” she said, explaining the only five-gaited horse she had shown was a pleasure horse. “He has the trot of my three-gaited horse and the speed of my [gaited] pleasure horse.”


Lilly explained his mission from the Spires family. “My order was to find Allison the best five-gaited horse that was for sale. I felt like he was the best value. He’s at an age where he can keep getting better for several years. She was ready for a horse that was a little green.

“He’s The Man [or Duke as he is known to friends and family] had all attributes you want in a five-gaited horse for any division,” Lilly said, acknowledging he had been following the horse since his two-year-old year. “He doesn’t have a weak gait and can go hard enough to be an open horse. He has a good expression, ears and a good slow gait and rack. He can step up and rack fast and is a powerhouse trotting. He doesn’t have an obvious weakness.”


What does Combs like best about riding Duke?


“I love the power … he is so powerful, so unbelievable. I love how high his knee goes at all gaits. It’s way up there at the trot and slow gait. I’ve watched a few of my tapes; I can’t hold him together the way Smith does. Duke doesn’t care who’s on him. He is always going hard, not like some who let down at home and step up at the show. He stays pretty high up there every second. He is what he is.”


Duke is more than a great performance horse. According to his trainer, Duke is a good ambassador for his owners, trainer and the breed. “He is a nice horse every day. He’s calm, a horse you can give a haircut without a twitch. You simply tie him to shoe him. He is a happy horse who likes to jog and long-line. He loves the attention. You come to his stall and he’ll greet you with a pleasant expression.”


Lilly debuted Duke at Bonnie Blue, winning the class. Rides at Roanoke and Lexington indicated that Combs and the colt needed more time getting to know one another. Despite Duke’s being a good thinking horse, there wasn’t time to get the team together [the way Lilly wanted them] before Louisville. Combs decided that Lilly should show him the rest of the season, building Duke’s confidence and his reputation.


The two had only a few weeks to prepare for the challenge that lay ahead. They relied on Duke’s early training.


“George raised and did the basic work on him,” Lilly continued. “We had him for the summer and were able to ride George’s training into the winner’s circle at Louisville. We didn’t try to change anything, nor would I have wanted to. He just had to get fitted up for the class.”


“Duke is a great big horse, well above average,” Lilly said, adding, “He is as big as he looks. It’s taken a lot for him to learn to handle that big body of his. A horse that big takes time to get coordinated.”


Wednesday, Aug. 22, Combs and her family waited in their seats above the first turn in Freedom Hall for their horse to come through the gate for the Five-Gaited Gelding Stake. Ten other geldings, including the reigning world’s grand champion, shared the arena. They had high hopes, but without expectations to match.


Duke hit the ring with his powerhouse trot. The Shires and Combs families held their collective breaths. He looked wonderful!


“I remember his coming in and losing a shoe. I was a nervous wreck,” Combs said. “After that, he calmed down, collected and showed like I love to watch him show.”


They were thrilled with Duke’s performance. When he was called out as class winner, it was smiles, tears and hugs all around.


By the time Saturday night rolled around, the pressure was on. He’s The Man had beaten the world’s champion. Could he do it again?


Lilly brought the gelding under the green light at Freedom Hall with one goal in mind: his horse wearing Louisville roses. But a Saturday night Louisville crowd is quite different than one at midweek. The noise level builds as each contender enters the ring. By the time the judges called for the slow gait, the five-year-old was rattled. Fate intervened. Lilly and another competitor called a time out.


Lilly quickly adjusted Duke’s bridle. While the other horse had a shoe replaced, he took advantage of the time to work his horse, slow-gaiting, racking him and getting him more accustomed to the crowd.


It worked. On the reverse, Lilly knew he had to go for broke to make up for any concerns the judges might have from the horse’s pre-timeout actions. The trainer called on all the knowledge he had gained from the masters he had worked with. Duke responded with the style, brilliance and heart one would expect from a horse with his pedigree.


The judges responded as well, awarding Duke the world’s grand championship without a workout. Lilly’s ‘acceptance speech’ following the win was a gracious tribute to those who helped him reach the pinnacle of a Saddlebred trainer’s world.


Five months after that Saturday night, Combs still gets excited when talking about her horse and his accomplishments. “I’m not sure it ever really sank in,” she said. “It was all very surreal. I could not believe it was happening! Smith and I talked about the pros and cons of his showing. I wasn’t quite ready. We went from making that decision in mid or late July to all that happened at the end of August. Unbelievable!”


As for Lilly, he still thinks the 1982 Skywatch vs. Imperator duel was the most exciting class he’s ever seen. He acknowledged the difference between that thrill and the one he experienced on a Saturday night at the end of August.


“Riding is always more exciting than watching, but nothing beats the drama of that [Imperator – Skywatch] workout. That was two of the greatest horses in history.


“The most fun thing about our show was the victory pass. My horse was really good and we had the crowd with us. Being last to ride out of the ring on Saturday night at Louisville … there’s nothing to compare with that.”

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