The night before last Friday's Kentucky Futurity at the Red Mile in Lexington, Milton Smith was so nervous he couldn't sleep—small wonder, considering he was on the brink of harness racing history. The 51-year-old Smith trains American Winner, who was gunning to become the first horse to win trotting's Triple Crown since his sire, Super Bowl, did it in 1972. If American Winner succeeded, he would make Smith, who began the year as the colt's $300-a-week van driver, the first African-American trainer to sweep the Triple Crown (the Yonkers Trot, the Hambletonian and the Futurity).
Before the Futurity's first heat on a cloudless, 80° afternoon, Smith looked tired as he checked out American Winner in the paddock. He puffed a cigarette. He didn't smile. Every now and then he stole a glance at Pine Chip, who figured to be American Winner's only serious challenger. On Sept. 23, Pine Chip's driver, John Campbell, the 38-year-old wizard who is the sport's leading money winner, had ruined Riyadh's bid for the pacing Triple Crown by guiding Life Sign to victory in the Little Brown Jug in Delaware, Ohio Now if he could beat American Winner with Pine Chip, he would become the first driver to end two Triple Crown threats in the same year. "John Campbell can make a difference," Smith admitted.
The crowd of 4,209 included Smith's two sisters and his father, also named Milton, who was an assistant trainer in Ohio in the 1940s and '50s. The younger Milton grew up around horses; then, in 1959, he joined the Navy and did four tours on aircraft carriers off Vietnam before being discharged in 1980 and returning to Ohio to train cheap standardbreds on the county-fair circuit. Alas, he had such meager success that in 1990 he accepted Robert Key's offer to become the van driver for American Winner and some of Key's other horses. In May, Key asked if Smith would be interested in replacing trainer Steve Bush, who had resigned. "I had faith in Milton," Key says.
When American Winner won the Yonkers Trot by 10½ lengths on July 10, Smith became the first black trainer to win a Triple Crown race since the series was organized in 1955. Then, on Aug. 7, American Winner and Smith reached even greater heights by winning the Hambletonian, the most coveted harness race of all, at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. "This is a dream come true," said Smith after American Winner had blown away Pine Chip and his other competitors with two record-setting trips. "I would have been happy just having some nice horses to train in Ohio."
But by Futurity Day, American Winner wasn't the horse he was in August. In the first heat Pine Chip drew off for an eight-length win after turning back American Winner's bid for the lead as the field trotted into the turn for home. An hour later Smith, undismayed, went into the second heat fully expecting American Winner to redeem himself with a victory that would force a third-heat duel with Pine Chip. But American Winner broke stride on the backstretch—"He hadn't done that all year," Smith said—and was nursed home by driver Ron Pierce, last in the field. Asked about spoiling another Triple Crown, Campbell shrugged and said, "It's unfortunate that American Winner wasn't at his best today."
There was reason aplenty for that, as it turned out. American Winner underwent tests last weekend, and Monday Key said the horse's right front leg was injured and apparently had been since mid-August. In fact, it is uncertain if he will race again. "When he started backing off, I knew he wasn't himself," Smith said. "But we got beat by a great colt and a great driver."