Apr 14th 2012 10:30 am |
This week, after an unintentional two-week hiatus from this site, I’m doing something a little different and posting an article about recent horse racing history. Through a strange twist of events that started with me reminiscing over a pile of newspaper articles from 2004, I ended up writing a very long account of the Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown run. Without further adieu, let’s take a look back at one of my favorite horses of all time…
While horse racing’s glory days are a distant memory, for a fleeting few weeks in 2004, Smarty Jones put racing back on the map.
Smarty Jones’ story was more than just the story of a dominant colt who won eight of nine career races, including two legs of the Triple Crown, and banked over $7 million in earnings. The human connections associated with Smarty and their local connection to Philadelphia all contributed to a perfect storm of media attention, record-breaking crowds, and a frenzy that surrounded the Triple Crown that hadn’t been seen since Secretariat’s run in 1973.
Roy and Patricia Chapman, the owners of Smarty Jones, were native Philadelphians who entered the thoroughbred business in the 1980s. Roy Chapman grew up in a working class section of Philadelphia and made his fortune through a series of car dealerships in and around his hometown. The Chapmans bred and raced a handful of stakes winners, but they will forever be linked to a homebred, born on their Pennsylvania farm, named Smarty Jones.
In 2001, the Chapmans’ longtime trainer Robert Carmac suggested that they breed their mare I’ll Get Along to Kentucky stallion Elusive Quality. That pairing produced a foal born on the Chapmans’ Someday Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania on February 28th, 2001. However, before their I’ll Get Along colt even had the name Smarty Jones, Robert Carmac was murdered along with his wife in their New Jersey home by his stepson over stolen checks. The stepson had been stealing from the Carmacs and, when confronted about it, violently reacted and shot them both.
At the time of this horrible tragedy, Roy Chapman had been in declining health for many years due to emphysema. He was confined to a wheelchair and relied on an oxygen tank to breathe. His health precipitated the Chapmans’ decision to sell Someday Farm and some of their broodmares. The news of their longtime trainer’s murder solidified the Chapmans’ decision to divest more of their breeding stock, including Smarty Jones’ dam I’ll Get Along, who was sold in 2001.
While they had sold their farm and drastically reduced their racing and breeding stock, they did retain a handful of young thoroughbreds, among them their colt by I’ll Get Along and Elusive Quality. After the murder of Robert Carmac, the Chapmans asked bloodstock agent and friend Mark Reid to suggest a new trainer. By this time, the colt who would become Smarty Jones was at an Ocala training center, and word was reaching Chapman that he had real potential. Chapman wanted a Pennsylvania trainer but preferred one willing to travel because of his promising runner in Ocala; he told Reid, “I want – if this horse has the ability – to go on the high road.” Reid gave them the name of John Servis, a Philadelphia-based trainer who had proven himself with good horses, having taken a filly named Jostle to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff in 1999.
John Servis was born in Philadelphia but grew up in West Virginia, near the Charles Town racetrack. His father was first a jockey and later a track steward at Charles Town. When John Servis turned 20 years old, he had already worked as a groom, stable hand, vet’s assistant, and jockey’s agent. When he became a trainer, he struggled with cheap horses on the fringes of the industry, living in a trailer home with his wife near Penn National at one point early in his career. He eventually worked his way up the ladder and became one of the top trainers at Philadelphia Park, a mid-level track in Bensalem, north of Philadelphia. It was a good place to make a living but not a typical starting point for Kentucky Derby horses. In spite of his headquarters in Philadelphia, Servis trained some good horses along the way, most notably the 3-year-old filly Jostle, who won the 2000 Alabama Stakes before finishing ninth in that year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
The 2-year-old Smarty Jones moved to the John Servis barn at Philadelphia Park in the spring of 2003. He came from Ocala with a reputation as a colt with lots of potential, but one with tremendous and sometimes uncontrollable energy. Servis told the Philadelphia Inquirer:
When he was a 2-year-old, it was probably about the second week he was here, he made a move on the racetrack where he actually jumped up off of all fours and turned sideways and kicked at another horse….You just don’t see that. I was like, ‘Man, how did he do that?’ He’s so light on his feet.
The difficulty in harnessing Smarty Jones’ power and energy as a 2-year-old led to an incident that became widely known during his Triple Crown run. While schooling in the starting gate at Philadelphia Park in July, an anxious Smarty Jones reared up and smashed his head into the metal frame of the gate. John Servis would later recall that immediately after the accident, he thought his promising colt was dead upon seeing the blood pour from his head.
The injuries were severe but not life-threatening. The story that he “almost died” as a 2-year-old from this incident became part of the Smarty legend. Smarty Jones had a fractured skull and nearly lost his eye as a result of the training accident. He spent nearly 30 days away from the track while recuperating
When he returned to Philadelphia Park, he continued training towards his first start, which came on November 9th, 2003 in a maiden special weight at Philly Park. He won the 6-furlong contest by nearly eight lengths in what the chart caller described as a “handy score.” He stepped up in class for his second race, the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes for state-breds, where he led wire to wire and won by 15 lengths. The Philadelphia Park track announcer, who called the race, told The Blood-Horse in 2004 that he was “blown away” by the performance.
The racing at Philadelphia Park was far below the ability of Smarty Jones, so Servis shipped to New York for his 3-year-old debut. In the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct in January 2004, Smarty Jones overcame a stumble at the start to win by an easy five lengths. In his first three races, he won by a combined 28 lengths. The “high road” that Roy Chapman envisioned for his colt when he hired John Servis now seemed like a reasonable path, and Servis decided the road to Churchill for Smarty Jones would begin in Arkansas. On January 8th, a few days after his win at Aqueduct, Smarty Jones, along with a crew in the employ of the colt’s trainer, arrived at Oaklawn.
In 2004, the road to the Triple Crown through Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas was not a traditional route. Of course, colts had run at Oaklawn and gone on to win Triple Crown races; the only other Pennsylvania state-bred before Smarty Jones to win the Kentucky Derby, Lil E. Tee, took the Oaklawn route. Only one graded race for 3-year-olds, the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, was offered at Oaklawn at the time, unlike Gulfstream Park in Florida that offered multiple opportunities to bank the necessary graded earnings to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. In the hope of attracting promising Triple Crown candidates to his track, Charles Cella, the longtime owner of Oaklawn, put up a $5 million bonus to any colt who could win the Rebel Stakes (which, as an ungraded race, wouldn’t help Derby hopefuls with graded earnings) and Arkansas Derby in Hot Springs and then go on to win the Kentucky Derby. As a result, the competition in Hot Springs during the Derby prep season of 2004 would be formidable.
When Smarty Jones arrived in Hot Springs, the same energy that made him so good on the track made him extremely difficult to handle during training. His primary exercise rider at Philadelphia Park said that he was the “toughest horse he ever galloped”. Servis admitted later that his colt “was going in the wrong direction” during the early days in Arkansas. But some equipment changes at Hot Springs made him easier to handle during workouts, and Servis would tell reporters before the Kentucky Derby that Smarty Jones grew into a “relaxed, settled, and confident” colt during his time at Oaklawn.
Smarty Jones’ debut in Arkansas came on February 28th in the one-mile Southwest Stakes, his second career race around two turns. He broke well and sat about two lengths behind a fast pace, passed the frontrunner around the final turn, and won by three-quarters of a length. It was the shortest winning margin of his eight lifetime victories and perhaps the least impressive race of his career. In his next race, the Rebel Stakes on March 20th, he did not go off as the betting favorite for the only time in his career. Even so, he handily beat a talented field of colts, pulling away from the pacesetter and post time favorite, Purge, in the stretch.
In the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby April 10th, he drew an outside post but broke well and sat just behind a fast pace on a track listed as “muddy.” By the time the field turned into the stretch, Smarty Jones had a three-length lead and was never threatened by closers Borrego and Pro Prado while winning by a length and a half. The win in the Arkansas Derby gave him the necessary earnings for the Kentucky Derby and put him two-thirds of the way to the $5 million bonus being offered by Oaklawn Park.
Smarty Jones was now undefeated in six races and heading to Louisville with the goal of becoming the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in 1977. Both his trainer, John Servis, and jockey Stewart Elliott were making their first appearances in the Kentucky Derby. Stewart Elliott, who had masterfully ridden Smarty Jones in all of the colt’s career races, was a 39-year-old jockey from Philadelphia Park. Elliott’s story became well-known during Smarty’s run through the Triple Crown. He came from a long line of horsemen tracing back many generations to his mother’s Scottish homeland. He became a jockey at the age of sixteen, nearly quit the game in his twenties, and overcame an alcohol addiction in his thirties to become a leading jockey at Philadelphia Park.
The Kentucky Derby would put Elliott up against the best riders in the country. It had been over 25 years since a jockey with his first-ever mount in the Kentucky Derby had won the big race; the last to do it was Ron Franklin aboard Spectacular Bid in 1979. Bob Baffert was quoted in the Philadelphia newspapers as saying that he would never bring a first-time jockey to the Derby, but Servis was loyal to his friend and first-call rider from Philadelphia Park. He also stressed the importance of having a jockey that knew his colt because Smarty Jones was not easy to ride.
The Chapmans stood behind their trainer and his decision to retain Elliott — Servis’ training had been perfect in getting their colt to Louisville. Roy Chapman, like Servis and Elliott, would ride the wave of Smarty success to celebrity status. The frail owner made his mark on the Smarty image when he referred to his colt as “a blue-collar horse” in interviews leading up to the Kentucky Derby. He was proud of the Philadelphia team that brought his homebred to racing’s biggest stage, and Philadelphia would embrace Chapman’s colt as if he were one of its beloved sports teams.
Smarty Jones drew post 15 for the Kentucky Derby and was made the 9-2 second choice on the morning line behind the Blue Grass Stakes winner The Cliff’s Edge. Hard rains came an hour before the post time and made for a sloppy track, but Smarty Jones had success on an off-track at Oaklawn and his stalking style fit the conditions. As he had done in his races in Arkansas, he broke perfectly from the Churchill gate and, after some jostling between horses running by the stands for the first time, Elliott guided him into a perfect position behind the frontrunners going into the first turn. He raced in fourth position just off the rail on the backstretch, never more than a few lengths behind frontrunner Lion Heart. By the time they moved into the far turn, Smarty Jones had improved his position and raced just behind Lion Heart with very little pressure from the rest of the field. When they turned into the stretch, it was a two-horse race with Smarty Jones pulling ahead of the game Lion Heart, who would hold on for second. Smarty Jones, the Pennsylvania homebred from Philadelphia Park, won the 2004 Kentucky Derby by nearly three lengths.
With the bonus for sweeping the two races at Oaklawn and winning the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones won a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park, making him the richest Kentucky Derby winner ever and the sixth richest thoroughbred in history.
A few days after winning the Derby, Smarty Jones returned to Philadelphia Park for the first time in nearly five months. He left his home track a virtual unknown in January but returned with news helicopters overhead, a news van following, and a police escort. A photograph of him splashing to victory at Churchill Downs under Stewart Elliott was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Smarty Jones had become the talk of the town in Philadelphia — the growing popularity in his hometown would result in large contingents of Philly fans breaking records for crowds at the upcoming Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Charles Cella, owner of Oaklawn, hand-delivered the $5 million bonus check to the Smarty Jones team a little over a week after the Derby win. Cella told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “…watching Smarty Jones pull away for the win in Kentucky was the greatest sports moment I have ever witnessed.” While presenting the check to the Chapmans, Cella told the owners that so many of the patrons at Oaklawn had bet Smarty in the Derby that his track ran out of cash and his mutuel clerks had to write checks to some of the big winners.
When Smarty Jones resumed galloping at Philadelphia Park, John Servis found his colt with the same energy level he had prior to the Derby. Servis told the local news that he expected his horse to tail off at some point, considering his intensive training and racing schedule to get to Churchill, but Smarty Jones showed no signs of weakening. Servis, confident in his colt’s conditioning, did not give him a timed workout before the Preakness and shipped to Pimlico a few days prior to the Preakness. Smarty Jones was made the morning line favorite against 10 entries.
A record crowd of 112,668 packed Pimlico for the Preakness, exceeding the previous record by over 8,000. The crowd spike was the result of the throngs who made the trip down Interstate 95 from Philadelphia to see their hometown horse. None of them would go home disappointed.
Smarty Jones won the Preakness by 11 lengths — a record-setting and absolutely dominating performance. Racing on a dry, fast track for the first time in two months, Smarty Jones broke beautifully and sat behind pacesetter Lion Heart, whose jockey Mike Smith forced Smarty Jones wide around the first turn. He ran behind Lion Heart for the length of the backstretch. As they made their way into the far turn, Stewart Elliott advanced along the rail, left wide open by jockey Mike Smith who kept his mount running towards the middle of the track. In a scene very similar to the Kentucky Derby, Lion Heart and Smarty Jones accelerated around the turn, opening up three lengths on the rest of the field. By the time they hit the stretch, Smarty Jones was in front. In the words of race caller Tom Durkin, he pulled away by a “colossal margin,” a margin that remains unmatched in Preakness history. Race fans around the country now had a reasonable hope that the long Triple Crown drought was at an end — only one race stood between Smarty Jones and a place among racing legends.
As he did after the Derby, Smarty Jones returned to his home base at Philadelphia Park. Interest in the colt, who was on the verge of racing history, reached a fever pitch. An estimated 8,500 fans watched Smarty Jones’ public workout on May 23. Smarty Jones t-shirts and hats sold out immediately after going on sale in Philadelphia stores. The Chapmans signed a deal with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association to sell Smarty merchandise at Belmont Park. About a week after his Preakness victory, Philadelphia Park reported that over 10,000 Smarty hats had been sold with proceeds going to support backstretch workers. He became the first horse to ever grace the cover of ESPN: The Magazine and his story was featured on A&E’s popular Biography series.
Amidst the media frenzy, the Smarty Jones team kept its composure and the colt continued to flourish. On May 28th, about a week prior to the Belmont Stakes, John Servis gave his colt his first timed workout since before the Kentucky Derby. Servis wanted him to work seven furlongs in 1:28 or 1:29. The workout was officially clocked at 1:29.03. Even with a news helicopter overhead, Smarty Jones worked perfectly, increasing his speed for the final two furlongs of the workout. Servis announced afterward that he would give Smarty a strong gallop around Philadelphia Park the day before he shipped him to Belmont Park, which he planned to do on the Wednesday prior to Saturday’s race.
On Saturday, June 5th, over 120,000 fans packed the century-old Belmont Park with the hope of witnessing history. A caravan of fans from Philadelphia traveled up the New Jersey Turnpike to help smash the previous Belmont attendance record by over 17,000. Triple Crown attempts are the rare occasion on which all racetrack patrons root for the same horse, and the crowd that packed Belmont to watch Smarty Jones was even more atypical than usual. It was large, loud, and fervently behind its horse.
As Smarty Jones walked onto the track for the 136th running of the Belmont Stakes, the crowd erupted. When he broke from the gate, it let out another wave of noise. As he made the lead on the backstretch, after being pushed four wide around the first turn, the volume of the crowd began to rise steadily the closer he got to the finish line.
While the crowd cheered, those with a discerning eye, including trainer John Servis, began to feel uneasy about how the race was progressing. Smarty Jones, who had comfortably sat off a fast pace in his previous races, was on the lead and seemed to be pulling Stewart Elliott. A horse’s inability to relax in the 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes did not bode well. The opening half-mile time of :48 flashed on the screen. Smarty Jones was being pressured by Eddington and Rock Hard Ten for the entire length of the backstretch. The time of 1:11.76 at the 6-furlong mark showed that he had not gotten a breather by the halfway point of the race. In fact, he was accelerating.
Smarty Jones remained in the front when the field hit the 1 ¼-miles mark before the top of the stretch, clocking a time of 2:00.52. The 1 ¼-miles time would have won all but four of the previous editions of the Kentucky Derby. Even so, Smarty Jones remained in the front and opened up a three-length length lead as he straightened into the stretch with the finish line now in view.
The crowd, with Smarty now running just yards away from the grandstand, had reached a crescendo; Belmont Park could not have been any louder. Smarty was now just under a quarter of a mile from the wire and racing immortality. But a colt named Birdstone, a disappointment during his 3-year-old season, was uncoiling a furious run towards Smarty Jones. A collective “oh” rose from the crowd as it became apparent what was about to happen. Belmont Park went from deafening hysteria to near-silence as Birdstone passed Smarty Jones 50 yards from the finish, the first and only time Smarty Jones was passed during his career. Those close to the finish line, who had been engulfed by the din for Smarty, could now hear Birdstone’s hoofs striking the dirt as he crossed the wire first.
In one of the strangest post-race scenes ever, the connections of Birdstone, including the colt’s owner Mary Lou Whitney, were apologetic. Whitney told the gathering press that she felt “horrible” that her horse won. Birdstone’s jockey, Edgar Prado, apologized to Stewart Elliott immediately after the race. Trainer and New York native Nick Zito had his first Belmont Stakes winner, and while he called it his “greatest victory,” he also called the result “…sad because Smarty Jones was great for racing.”
The Smarty team maintained its class in bitter defeat. Stewart Elliott’s reply to an apologetic Edgar Prado was “…not to worry. That’s horse racing.” Elliott said in a post-race news conference, “All along, I said if the horse got beat, I just hoped it was fair and square, and that’s the way it went. So I have no complaints.” John Servis told reporters that his colt never relaxed and that he knew he was in trouble when he saw jockey Elliott struggling to restrain Smarty Jones on the backstretch. Later in the week, Servis rejected the claims that jockeys Jerry Bailey and Gary Stevens aboard Eddington and Rock Hard Ten used inappropriate tactics to pressure and tire his colt while he raced in the lead. Servis stood by his conclusion that Smarty Jones never relaxed, which had nothing to do with the actions of the other jockeys in the race.
Smarty Jones again returned to Philadelphia Park. Prior to the Belmont, Servis had indicated that the Haskell Stakes and the Pennsylvania Derby were possibilities for Smarty’s return to the races. The Chapmans came to the conclusion that the costs of insuring their colt for a 4-year-old season made the possibility of his racing beyond 2004 doubtful. All signs pointed to the Breeders’ Cup being the last time Smarty Jones would race.
On June 26th, a few hours after Smarty Jones returned to the track for the first time since his defeat at Belmont, a stud deal reportedly worth $35 to 40 million was secured with Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky. The Chapmans retained a 50% interest in their homebred. One of the stipulations in their contract with Three Chimneys was that Smarty Jones would remain accessible to the public.
A month later, at the end of July, Servis announced that Smarty Jones had a hoof bruise and would not appear in the Pennsylvania Derby as planned. While his connections insisted that the injury was in no way career-threatening, a little over a week later the Chapmans announced that Smarty Jones would retire from racing. Roy Chapman told reporters in a conference call about the retirement: “We’re just heartsick over it, but I think we’re making the right decision in our hearts to let him retire.”
In an article for the Blood-Horse, reporting on Smarty Jones’ Eclipse Award for 3-year-old male, Steve Haskin wrote:
Smarty Jones leaves behind a whirlwind of memories, not only of a heroic, fairy tale-like figure, but an extremely gifted racehorse who never got a chance to catch up to the greatness that surely awaited him.
SOURCES AND NOTES
The content of this piece relied heavily on the outstanding coverage from the Philadelphia Inquirer — led by race writers Craig Donnelly and Mike Jensen — during the Smarty Jones run through the Triple Crown in 2004. I was a devoted reader of the Inquirer at the time so it was a real treat reading through all of these articles again. Unfortunately, all of their archives are behind a paywall. Here is a list of the articles I consulted:
“Smarty Jones at ease in Ky,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 April 2004
“Ride of His Life – A journeyman jockey aims to hit his stride,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 27 April 2004
“Playing It Smarty – Trainer John Servis stays calm as Derby Day nears,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 April 2004
“Owners revel in whirl of Derby,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 April 2004
“Mud and Guts – Philly’s Smarty Jones dazzles at the Derby,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 2 May 2004
“Derby win is rooted in tragic tale,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 May 2004
“Smarty Jones returns in triumph…the Kentucky Derby winner enjoyed his hay at Philadelphia Park,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 5 May 2004
“Smarty gallops, wants to run,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 8 May 2004
“Surprise gift makes his mother’s day – Derby win gave Smarty Jones’ mom her due,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 9 May 2004
“Smarty Jones’ power required harnessing – Turning the colt into a Derby winner was not easy,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 May 2004
“Smarty Jones is winning a lot more than roses,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 May 2004
“Fast & Glorious – Smarty Jones streaks to 11 1/2-length victory,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 16 May 2004
“Vet made some smart moves,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 19 May 2004
“Jones on Smarty Jones: ‘I was blown away,” Bloodhorse, 20 May 2004
“NTRA inks deal to sell ‘Smarty’ merchandise,” Bloodhorse, 21 May 2004
“Thousands watch Smarty Jones workout,” Gadsen Times, 23 May 2004
“If Smarty wins, he’ll race again,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 May 2004
“Easy Does It for Smarty – Colt is tested at 7 furlongs with fastest speed at end,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 May 2004
“Birdstone’s redemption ruins Smarty’s day,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 June 2004
“Servis and Elliott saw problems,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 June 2004
“Servis: Eddington jockey not at fault,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 June 2004
“Three Chimneys Farm wins race to keep Smarty at stud,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 26 June 2004
“Horse Sense,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 August 2004
“Smarty Jones’ run to greatness ends – Smarty Jones put out to stud as racing career ends,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 3 August 2004
“2004 Eclipse 3YO Male: Smarty Jones,” Bloodhorse, 25 January 2005
Steve Haskin wrote a follow up piece in 2007, a kind “where are they now” piece, about the Smarty Jones team. Check it out here