On a wall in Aqueduct Racetrack’s press box is a snapshot of a woman smiling as she raises a glass in a toast. Shirley Day Smith worked for the New York Racing Association and its predecessors for more than 60 years, starting when thoroughbred racing, along with baseball and boxing, was among the big three of American sports.
Because she retired in 1995 after 40 years with NYRA, many who see that old photo never knew Smith. She served as an administrative assistant, mainly dealing with the media, back when all-time greats Red Smith, Joe Hirsch and Bill Nack chronicled racing.
Smith, 99, of Lido Beach, died Thursday after a brief illness at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside, her longtime friend Paula Rodenas said. Among the NYRA publicity directors Smith worked for were Pat O’Brien, Pat Lynch, Sam Kanchuger, Chris Scherf, Steve Schwartz and Glen Mathes, said Bob Curran Jr., a retired Jockey Club communications director and a former NYRA colleague who released a statement on her death.
“Shirley was loved by everybody,” Mathes told Curran. “And I’d venture to say she helped more people than anyone in the history of horse racing. That was certainly true when it came to members of the media. She was a great worker and an even better person.”
Her career spanned the World War II era to the early days of the internet. Smith was on the job in October 1991 when there was a triple dead heat for win at Belmont Park.
“Shirley said, ‘We’re going to need a lot of copies of that photo-finish picture because I remember we did the last time it happened,’ ” Mathes said. “The last time it had happened was 47 years earlier, in the 1944 Carter Handicap.”
Smith helped run the New York Turf Writers Association, and her influence extended beyond her hometown. The New York City native was honored as a Kentucky Colonel by that state, and in 2001 she received the Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service to racing from the National Turf Writers Association.
For Rodenas, a freelance writer from Merrick, Smith was a kindly mentor. ”I was an equestrian journalist who had never covered racing,” Rodenas said. “When I started doing that, she was very helpful. She treated everybody like family.”
Smith, who was married when she was young, had no children, Rodenas said.
There will be a funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Monday at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Church in Point Lookout, with burial at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.