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Valerie Smith (1916–2008)

by Tony Stephens

One Saturday night nearly 60 years ago, at Sydney's then fashionable Romano's restaurant and nightspot, Valerie Smith joined a large, lively party in a private room. Other guests included her husband, T. J. (Tommy) Smith, who was to become Australia's foremost racehorse trainer, and Athol (George) Mulley, the prominent jockey.

Tommy Smith had a few drinks. Mulley, who had once come to fisticuffs with Smith's leading jockey, George Moore, was behaving in character. The two grown, if short, men came to blows. Valerie, a woman of style and substance, intervened in the names of peace and decency.

Removing a shoe from a coutured foot, she wielded it as if to strike a spider. Her target is presumed to have been Mulley. But her strike landed on her husband's head, opening a cut which had to be stitched at St Vincent's Hospital. At least Valerie had resolved the issue, by ending the fight.

The story makes two points about Valerie Smith, who has died two weeks short of her 92nd birthday: she could be feisty but her main role in life was as a mentor, support and, sometimes, protector of her husband.

She made no apologies for this, telling the Herald in 1981: "I'm a wife first and last. Nobody will ever convince me that marriage is not what makes the world go round properly. I'm my husband's greatest fan. The success of my marriage was my ambition. And to be a good wife is a career in itself."

Valerie was born in Sydney, the daughter of Maude and her husband, Bill Finlayson, a Scot who had migrated to Australia for his asthma, become a ship's engineer and built the gates for Randwick Racecourse. Valerie had two sisters, Belle and Heather, two brothers, Bill and Neville, and half-siblings Frankie, Stan and Meg.

The girls attended Rose Bay Convent and Valerie maintained close ties with the school and her classmates for more than 75 years. The day she died, she had organised a lunch party for her approaching birthday with 14 friends, including several from the class of 1932. The school instilled in her a devout Christian faith.

On leaving school, she became a secretary and continued singing lessons. With a fine voice, she considered the possibility of a career as a classical singer. At 19, she was beaten in the Sydney Town Hall Eisteddfod by the younger Joan Sutherland.

The attractive Finlayson girls were much pursued during the late 1930s. Tommy Smith first met Valerie in 1946, after he had asked her brother-in-law, Morris Wallington: "Who is that exquisite piece of crepe de chine?" He then told her: "I'm going to do three things. Firstly, I'm going to marry you. Then I'm going to own a luxury home in the best part of Sydney and own and drive a Rolls-Royce."

She was unimpressed, describing him as that "horsey man". The frequently delivered bunches of then-fashionable gladioli failed to improve his chances. She thought he would never amount to much. "Tom was gruff, blunt, direct, streetwise, flamboyant, while I was sheltered and conservative," she recalled later.

Yet the fact that she had never met anyone quite like him gradually changed from a source of irritation to one of attraction. After six years, she relented and they married in 1952, just as T.J. Smith was realising his ambition of becoming a successful racehorse trainer. He was to make good his three promises to her.

Valerie Smith made the family home, played the piano and sang. Above all, she transformed her husband from an ill-educated, rough-edged young man into a person comfortable in all levels of society. She educated him and kept him on more or less of an even keel in a career that often produced anxiety.

Her other great legacy was their daughter, Gai Waterhouse, the actor who became one Australia's leading racehorse trainers. Valerie would deliver Gai to and from school. One morning, in Gai's last year at school, the mother superior waited for Smith and said: "Mrs Smith, this is an important year for Gai. I must insist she arrives at school on time." Valerie replied that she had never once had Gai to school late, always arriving before 9am. "Mrs Smith," the mother superior said, "school has always started at 8.30."

Smith wanted Gai to pursue a life on the stage, emulating Valerie's own mother, Maude. She did not want her daughter to go to the races with her father. Instead, mother and daughter would browse art galleries or antique shops, or go to a pony club. However, the daughter eventually followed her father's career and Valerie's fondness for the sport and industry grew with her daughters's success. By 2004, she part-owned 38 horses, including that year's Golden Slipper winner, Dance Hero.

After T.J. Smith's death in 1998, Valerie lived with Gai and her husband, the bookmaker Robbie Waterhouse. This was her 58th year on the Black and White Committee, which supports the Royal Blind Society. She also raised funds for St Vincent's Hospital and, until recently, worked as a nurse's aide one afternoon a week.

Original publication

Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Smith, Valerie (1916–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Finlayson, Valerie

December, 1916


3 December, 2008 (aged ~ 92)
New South Wales, Australia

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