2004: Smarty Jones

Sunday, May 02, 2004
By Maryjean Wall, Herald-Leader Racing Writer
Smarty Jones was leaving Lion Heart in the homestretch of Kentucky Derby 130 when the thought that will become the theme of these Triple Crown races must have struck nearly everyone watching the race.
Just what kind of horse is this Smarty Jones, really?The little red horse that few believed could pull off the job until yesterday, when he was made the 4-1 favorite, was now pulling away in the long homestretch to beat Lion Heart by 2 3/4 lengths. Imperialism was third and Limehouse fourth on a sloppy track that was so thoroughly rain-soaked that 140,054 hardy souls who went to Churchill Downs will also remember this Derby for the icky weather: humid and very, very wet.
Mostly, though, they will remember the day for Smarty Jones, the little horse who ran yesterday like the little engine that could.
From the way Smarty’s folks went on, winning the Kentucky Derby would have been quite enough for owners Roy and Patricia Chapman, who race as Someday Farm. And for trainer John Servis as well as jockey Stewart Elliott. All were racing in their first Derby. All said they were just happy to be here.
But for Smarty, this was more than just the Derby. He also was winning a $5 million bonus — put up by Oaklawn Park for sweeping the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas and Kentucky derbys — in addition to his $854,800 purse for winning the race. It was the biggest payday ever in North America for a racehorse. As well, Smarty became the first undefeated winner of the Derby since Seattle Slew 27 years ago, and only the fifth Derby winner to be undefeated. His jockey became the first since Ronnie Franklin on Spectacular Bid in 1979 to win the Derby in his first-ever ride in the race.
Now, you have to wonder whether Smarty might claim a place alongside such horses as Spectacular Bid, who nearly won a Triple Crown, or even a Triple Crown winner like Seattle Slew. It’s early, sure, to think in terms like this, but the question hung over this Derby in the final sixteenth of a mile in such a way that no one could blow it off.
Smarty’s life story, so rich in fateful twists and turns, becomes even more folksy because he’s only the second Pennsylvania-bred to win the Kentucky Derby. The other, Lil E. Tee, was another folksy, down-home kind of horse.
Chapman, Smarty’s 77-year-old owner who carries an oxygen tank because he has emphysema, succinctly summed up the story of his home-bred, son of Kentucky-based Elusive Quality out of the mare called I’ll Get Along: “I don’t think this horse ever got the respect he deserves,” Chapman said.
Servis, the trainer, has always warned that Smarty Jones does not want to give up in a race, that he fights back because he does not want to let a horse pass him near the finish.
That proved true once more when Smarty Jones left Lion Heart behind him yesterday.
Servis called Elliott’s ride “magnificent.”
The colt had a near-perfect trip.
The only unimpressive aspect was the final time of the race on the sloppy
track: 2:04.06. Since 1950, only two Derbys have been run in slower time: Sunday Silence, in 2:05 on a muddy track in 1989, and Tim Tam, in 2:05 on a muddy track in 1958.
But forget the time. The great horse Citation, who some people argue was better than Man o’ War, won his 1948 Kentucky Derby on a sloppy track in 2:05 2/5.
So there. Another great name to which Smarty might aspire.
Elliott said he wasn’t thinking about any of this when he came to Lion Heart nearing the eighth pole. Not Seattle Slew. Not Spectacular Bid. Not Citation. And surely not Secretariat.
He said he knew only that he was going to win this race.
When he passed Lion Heart, “my horse was running, and I knew it would take a horse running to come get me,” Elliott said.
Soon, there was only the sound of Lion Heart’s hoofbeats fading behind him. The crowd noise from both sides of the track was probably louder than any Elliott had ever heard, for this was the biggest race in which he’d participated.
But early on, in the first turn, the race had not looked quite so sweet to Elliott. As a first-timer riding the Derby, he was not prepared for the sensation of crowding that comes when so many horses with speed shoot for early position in a race as large as this Derby’s 18-horse field.
“There was a few more horses there than I expected,” Elliott said. His colt was one of four crowded in the second tier behind the leader, Lion Heart, approaching the first turn.
“We kind of jammed up a little bit, but no big deal,” Elliott said. “We got clear sailing down the backside.”
Lion Heart continued to lead down the backstretch and at one point was 2 lengths in front. The race looked to be all Lion Heart’s at that point, for this was the fast horse who many feared would be uncatchable on the lead.
Smarty was biding his time, waiting for the signal from Elliott that would come in a shift of the jockey’s hands on his neck and a slight shift in his position in the saddle. Smarty Jones was fourth down the backstretch. Then, as the approach to the final turn loomed, Elliott signaled the horse. This was not the signal to run full-out but the cue to leave the pack and move closer to the leader.
The critical strategy was to keep Lion Heart in sight. Nearing the far turn, Smarty had him in his sights. For now, he was second and gaining. Behind Smarty, Minister Eric had made a big move from fifth to third. The Cliff’s Edge, another colt of interest, was far back, next to last. He would finish fifth despite losing his front shoes in the slop. Imperialism, who would make a huge run through the homestretch to gain third at the finish, was at this point running 13th.
“At the three-eighths, I was just biding my time,” Elliott said, “but I knew I had a loaded gun beneath me.”
Then Smarty dropped into his dead-run gear. “He straightened (for home) and switched leads,” Elliott said, “and it was time to go.”
With only an eighth of a mile remaining, Smarty Jones was in front and widening his lead.
As Lion Heart’s rider, Mike Smith, said about Smarty Jones, he was “too much.”

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