Anne Smith had a bachelor’s degree in biology, had worked some jobs that involved chemistry, was on a waiting list for medical school and had been accepted for Officer Candidates School at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va.
The 1988 Crystal Lake South graduate had options back in the early 1990s, but none of those were Smith’s true passion.
Smith remembers the conversation that guided her career choice like it happened yesterday. She had observed Dr. Robert Witkowski, from Barrington’s Good Shepherd Hospital, performing surgeries. Witkowski offered the aspiring medical student some advice.
“He said, ‘If I could have been a pro golfer, I’d have been a pro golfer,’ ” she said. “ ‘If you love horses, you should give that a shot.’ He told me to stay with what I love.”
Smith heeded the doctor’s words. She went on to teach horse riding and competed in show jumping. Later, she earned her license to gallop thoroughbreds at racetracks. Now Smith, a first-year trainer, has 6-year-old Nate’s Mineshaft running in the 31st Arlington Million, which is set for a 5:44 p.m. post time Saturday at Arlington Park.
“Right now, I try to remind myself things people like Oprah [Winfrey] say, like ‘You create your own luck,’ ” Smith said. “Or ‘Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.’ I’m going to prepare [Nate] the best I can, the way I think he needs to be ready. It’s my first time doing it, so I’m trying to be as smart as I can. He’s never faced this kind of competition and never run this distance.”
Also, it will only be Nate’s third race on turf, but he has run well over the past 16 months. Windy Hill Farm father-and-son owners Pete and Scott Reiman felt Smith earned her chance to be their trainer.
She had worked with her husband, Austin Smith, who left Windy Hill last year. The Smiths are now divorced, but Anne says her ex-husband was a very good trainer who taught her a lot about the business.
“She actually did a lot of the day-to-day [training] with the horses,” said Scott Reiman, whose farm is in southern Illinois. “She’s such a hard worker and honest. I enjoy working with her more than anybody I’ve worked with.
"The reason we’ve had so many trainers is none of them seemed to think Nate was any good. All they wanted to do was put him in claiming races. I told her how fast this horse was and she believed me. Anne and Nate just have a connection.”
Always a horse lover
Anne Smith developed an attachment to horses at an early age. She constantly bugged her parents, Dennis and Kay Preshlock, to let her ride. By age 8, they bought her a lesson package at Crystal Manor Stables on Route 176, then Anne got a job on the barn crew to pay for her lessons. A couple years later, after Dennis died, Kay fulfilled one of his wishes and got Anne her own horse.
Witkowski and his surgery partner at Good Shepherd, Dr. Robert Flanigan, had been Dennis Preshlock's doctors when he was sick. As a favor to the family, they let Anne observe surgeries after she graduated from Illinois. It was during that time that Witkowski offered his almost-fatherly advice.
“She’s loved horses since she was a toddler,” said Kay, who still lives in Crystal Lake. “Each horse is an individual. Anne recognizes each personality and their individual moods. She has a good eye for what each horse will respond to. She’s very talented at that.”
Smith competed in hunter and jumper shows through high school and rode on the equestrian team while attending the University of Illinois. In the summer of 1990, she had an internship at Arlington with trainer Carl Nafzger, a member of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. That summer, Nafzger had Kentucky Derby champion Unbridled at Arlington.
Nafzger taught her how to gallop thoroughbreds, but she went back to show jumping and teaching.
“I still incorporate methods and ideas from my show jumping peers,” Smith said. “Every horse has something to teach you. Every trainer you work with will have something you can take with you.”
Smith jumped against Olympic riders and qualified for national competitions three times. Jumpers still hold a spot in her heart and when she sees a thoroughbred that obviously is not going to be fast enough, she “reconditions” them and helps set them up with her jumping friends.
She points to one of the 14 Windy Hill Farm horses in her stall at the Arlington barns, who is a jumping candidate. The mare is just not fast enough to race.
“That’s tough, letting them go,” Smith said. “You want them to stay with you, but you have to make those kinds of decisions. Hopefully, they’re good [at jumping] and you can hear about how great they’re doing in their new job.”
Smith lives close to the track and arrives around 5 each morning. The day starts with her checking the horses’ legs and arranging their training schedules. She has four hours to get it all done before the track opens.
The Reimans hired Smith without reservations last October. They appreciated her knowledge and the way she handled the horses. They felt she, as much as anyone, helped Nate break out over the past year and a half.
There is some trial and error in horse training. Smith, who ran track in high school, says horses are very much like human athletes in some ways.
“These 2-year-olds are like junior high kids, some are growing and gawky, some are sprouting chest hair, and some are still shy and want to watch,” she said. “Every single horse is different. You have to tweak and customize for their needs to bring out their potential.”
Nate had an easy week leading up to the biggest moment of his career Saturday afternoon. His week included two massages and one day of paddock schooling, where he stands in the starting gate to make sure there are no issues there before the race.
On Saturday, Smith says Nate will know it’s time.
“All of a sudden, he feels three inches taller,” Smith said. “He starts walking around the barn grabbing everybody’s hay nets like he owns the barn. He starts shaking his head. He looks up in the grandstand and he knows he’s about to be on stage. It’s really cool. They’re very intelligent.”
Kay Preshlock will be among the contingent cheering on Nate Saturday. She is proud that her daughter has reached one of horse racing’s pinnacle races.
“I am not surprised [she is a trainer],” Preshlock said. “She has dedication, determination and a true talent and affection for horses.”