Friday, September 26, 2014


Smarty’s Belmont Controversy: The Aftermath, Part V


Smarty Jones’ bid at the Triple Crown ended just a length short. Years later, the memory remains, and so too does Smarty’s resonant effect on the world of horse racing.

Four years later Big Brown was a live threat to win the Triple Crown. The memory of Smarty’s run was still fresh in everyone’s mind. He was the last horse that had a chance to do it.

Pat Forde, an ESPN.com senior writer then, wrote a piece titled “Ganging up on favorite isn’t unimaginable at Belmont.”

The idea is sinister. It’s sporting sacrilege. But it’s a question that needs to be asked.

Would someone actually enter the Belmont Stakes with the intention of making massive favorite Big Brown lose the Triple Crown rather than with the intention of seeing his own horse win?

Smarty Jones’ bid at the Triple Crown ended just a length short. Years later, the memory remains, and so too does Smarty’s resonant effect on the world of horse racing.

Four years later Big Brown was a live threat to win the Triple Crown. The memory of Smarty’s run was still fresh in everyone’s mind. He was the last horse that had a chance to do it. Pat Forde, an ESPN.com senior writer then, wrote a piece titled “Ganging up on favorite isn’t unimaginable at Belmont.”

The idea is sinister. It’s sporting sacrilege. But it’s a question that needs to be asked.

Would someone actually enter the Belmont Stakes with the intention of making massive favorite Big Brown lose the Triple Crown rather than with the intention of seeing his own horse win?

Forde harkened back to Smarty Jones. “Roy Chapman, owner of the last horse to arrive in New York with a shot to win the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones, went to his grave in 2006 convinced that Smarty’s ’04 Belmont defeat was a setup. He believed elite jockeys Jerry Bailey and Alex Solis engaged in suicidal tactics designed to make the big horse fail.

“I never saw two riders ride so hard to lose a race in my life,” Chapman growled one week after his colt lost the Crown in deep stretch to Birdstone. “They just were out for one thing: making sure Smarty didn’t win.”

Hennig, trainer to Eddington, the horse who burned the most out of Smarty Jones down the backside, said, “Nowhere is it written in the rules that if a horse is going for the Triple Crown, everyone should just let him do as he pleases.”

Bailey never rode Eddington again. There’s a saying that some trainers, who are confident in their riders, tell their jocks ride the horse like you own it. “Ride your horse like you own it and the rent’s due,” like Servis told Elliott.

It appeared Bailey took too many liberties in that regard. On the day of the Calder Derby later in 2004, Eddington needed a rider and Bailey was available, but he didn’t get the mount from Hennig.

Servis thought that story made perfect sense. That sums it up. He even heard that Hennig wanted to kill Bailey after that Belmont, something Hennig either failed to remember or didn’t care to.

Rick Dutrow, trainer of Big Brown, said leading up to the 2008 Belmont, “I think that the connections of Smarty Jones were not smart in order to get their job done for the Belmont. They should have played it a lot safer, a lot better.”

Dutrow also criticized Elliott’s ride in the Preakness, “I also feel he did not need to win the way he did in the Preakness to get to the Belmont.”

Elliott tapped Smarty once at the top of the stretch. He accelerated in a hand ride while the other horses backed up. It wasn’t as taxing as it might have looked. “He handled [the Preakness] great,” Servis told a reporter. “[Smarty] licked the tub dry.”

Elliott took the slings and arrows in stride. He remembered Dutrow saying those nasty things. Elliott was convinced that Smarty won the Preakness easily. He thought they were in good shape for the Belmont. He didn’t overdo it. You get beat on a favorite and people boo you. That’s how it goes. It’s part of the game.

Other jockeys came out in support of Elliott, Servis, and Smarty. One said, “I have been a jockey for seventeen years and have always had a lot of respect for Jerry Bailey. His ride in the Belmont Stakes, however, on a live contender, was a disgrace to horse racing. Bailey sacrificed himself only to beat Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott.”

Steve Haskin, a writer for Blood-Horse magazine, noted, “They apparently were on a suicide mission, targeting Smarty Jones at the expense of their own mounts … By the time Smarty neared the quarter pole, he was rolling on the lead, increasing his margin with every stride. The crowd, now in a frenzy, never noticed the mile and a quarter fraction of 2:00.52, which would have won every Kentucky Derby but four.

“When Smarty vanned to Belmont Park, three helicopters hovered overhead. Motorcycle police escorts arrived. But, like Zito said earlier in the Triple Crown season in reference to his own horses, “Great expectations bring great disappointment.”
///

Smarty Jones sired his first Grade 1 winner in 2013 after starting his breeding career in 2005. Horses have a limited shelf life to prove themselves as a stallion. They have until their first crop of three-year-old colts or fillies. After that major breeding operations grow impatient. As brilliant as Smarty was on the racetrack, his offspring never quite lived up to expectations.

Nobody knew that in 2004, although there may have been signs. His sire, Elusive Quality, was a miler. His broodmare sire, Smile, was a champion sprinter. Stamina just wasn’t in Smarty’s chomosomes.

After the 2004 Preakness, major breeding operations in Kentucky beat down the Chapman’s door. The Chapmans had the Derby and Preakness winner. The Chapmans, sensing they were in deep water, turned to their long-time friend George Isaacs, the man who broke Smarty as a yearling and two-year-old, to help broker any deals.

It might have started 30 minutes before the Derby when Clay approached Roy during the post parade. When they met that planted roots, roots that could bear fruit later.

Isaacs felt the deal was easy since they sat on the horse everybody wanted. The Chapmans wanted to keep half the horse. It was more than just money; it was about finding the right fit for their horse.

Representatives from all the major farms flew in to Philadelphia. They met at Philadelphia International Airport: all 10 of them. The Chapmans were out of their element but they had Isaacs, their ace in the hole. During the negotiations, Roy took Pat aside and told her, “Pat, it’s your horse. I’m not going to help you make your decision. You’re going to live with the decision longer than I am. I don’t have long.”

Said Isaacs: “You want to talk to as many as possible, hear what they have in mind. You will decide whether to breed three hundred mares or limit his book size.” Isaacs spoke to Clay, “Robert, you called first. Because you did I’ll allow you the courtesy of being first, middle, or last.”

“I’d like to be first out of the block,” Clay replied.

It came down to Three Chimneys, Lane’s End, and Darley. Clay knew that sending your Derby winner to a breeding farm is like sending your child to boarding school. Personal relationships matter.

Smarty was on Clay’s radar after his impressive win in the Arkansas Derby. After that race, he could tell that Smarty could be a good horse; the Kentucky Derby confirmed that. Clay liked that Smarty wasn’t too big either. He’d be a nice size to suit a lot of mares. Smarty’s pedigree was questionable but he came within a length of winning the Triple Crown. He was worth the risk.

WinStar offered $25 million, a bit low, but had a list of intangibles, Isaacs thought. They would buy a group of mares to support the horse, maybe $10 million worth of mares. Lane’s End offered close to $40 million, but they had too many stallions for the Chapmans’ liking. It was public-university-big vs. liberal-arts-college-small.

Isaacs watched as Three Chimneys and Darley dueled. Darley was looking to make inroads into North American stallions but Three Chimneys was established. They had experience with Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner. And they had relatively few stallions compared to some other operations that had several dozen. Three Chimneys went up to $39 million and the deal was done.

Smarty was sliced into 60 shares with the Chapmans retaining half. The Chapmans also wanted easy access and visitation rights. Smarty was so important to so many people, his mythology and his legend so grand, that accessibility was of paramount importance to them.

By August 5, 2004, all the shares were sold. Twenty shares went out at $650,000 a share. Three Chimneys held 10. The big shock would be his stud fee: $100,000. Isaacs knew it was a bit inflated but based on the price of his syndication, Three Chimneys needed to reflect that investment.

Smarty’s progeny needed to run; run fast and run fast often. They did the first two but failed to graduate to graded-stakes level.

When a horse commands that kind of value, the pressure is on. It used to be a horse had three years and three crops. These days, it’s far less forgiving. The fuse is lit and the dynamite had better ignite. Clay even gave Smarty a longer tenure as a top sire, hoping his crops would come around.

Japan offered to buy him but Pat wouldn’t hear of it. By now, her husband had passed, but Roy’s words stuck with her, that she would have to live with the decision forever. Pat would always keep Smarty.

Again and again, Smarty’s offspring failed to advance beyond a basic stakes level. Maybe, if he was washed up in Kentucky, he could come home to Pennsylvania. Like Odysseus’ long road back to Greece, Smarty would be back where it all began, back when he was the vision of the late Bob Camac’s eye and where the Chapmans nearly gave horse racing the pink slip.

Smarty had the will to win on the racetrack. But breeding is molecular, the fusion of X and Y chromosomes, and how they arrange those nucleotides determines if one horse has innate ability over another. Smarty’s heart was uniquely his own to keep.

Smarty Jones was beloved, such a gritty son of a gun on the track, that he was a testament to his legacy. It’s why some very smart businessmen bought into Smarty as a stallion.

When Pat saw his book size shrinking and she was losing money, she reached out to Clay and said, “I can’t afford this… and neither can Smarty.”

Clay read the writing on the wall and probably stayed in longer than he normally would have because Smarty came within eight feet of a Triple Crown.

Clay and Pat contacted Carl McEntee of Northview Stallions in Pennsylvania. McEntee knew that Kentucky bloodstock was a very here-and-now kind of business. They grant you favor until your two-year-olds hit the track and if your three-year-olds aren’t running, they’re onto the next big thing and there’s always a next big thing.

Smarty Jones came back to Philadelphia, his Odyssey complete. He became the flag bearer for the Pennsylvania breeding program, Act 71, that allowed for expanded gaming in the state which, as a result, led to higher purses and state-bred incentives on the racetrack.

McEntee said that when Smarty made his return, 3,500 people turned out to see the returning hero. The local breeder walked through the parking lot just to see the license plates. People came across five states just to get within a length of Smarty. He was humbled by the experience, realizing just how much the horse touched people.

To this day the farm receives Christmas presents, birthday cards, and emails from Smarty’s fans. McEntee reads them all; inspiring messages from people who owe their love of horse racing to the undersized horse with an oversized heart, a horse that shook the earth.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Thursday, September 25, 2014


Belmont Day: Smarty Jones & Racing History, Part IV


Smarty Jones had delivered in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The Smarty Party was in full force and there was just one race to go. The weight of history and the Triple Crown lay before Smarty Jones if he could just hold on—and hold off—any late charges.

The 1 ½ miles of the Belmont Stakes was all that stood between Smarty Jones and immortality. It promised to be the toughest challenge of his career. If he could just hold onto his winning form for one more race…

For months, all the Chapmans heard was that Smarty didn’t have the pedigree, that he’d run into a wall sooner or later. Yet here they were—a win away from being the racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

Deep down, Roy thought that someday, somewhere, he’s going to get beat. He only had to wait three more weeks now to wait.
///

Prior to the Belmont Stakes, John Servis was at a Philadelphia Phillies game. He was asked what his concern about the race was. Was it the 1 ½ miles? “I said ‘We’re the horse with the bull’s eye on our back.’ Everybody is worried about my horse.

The way the race set up, it’s human nature to worry about these things. Everybody usually tries to find a way to win the race. In the Belmont, if there’s a Triple Crown horse in there, every horse in the race thinks, ‘How do I beat the horse, not win the race?’”

Jerry Bailey, the jockey of Eddington, to this day receives much of the blame for why Smarty Jones lost that day, Smarty’s one and only loss in the ninth and final race of his career.

Eddington didn’t win, which makes it all the more frustrating for those who still blame Bailey, who’s tired of the criticism. All these years later he still deals with it when the Belmont Stakes rolls around. No matter what he says people won’t believe him. He maintains that he didn’t ride his horse to beat Smarty Jones, only to win the race.

“It’s 10 years later and I still get so much bullshit about it,” Bailey said in a phone interview. For instance, it irritated him that ESPN reporter Jeannine Edwards has never let it go. Bailey maintains he moved early down the backside because it was the only way to beat this horse, otherwise they’d never get to him. Bailey even gave Eddington a tap with the whip down the backside to ensure that Eddington kept up.

In his book, Against the Odds, Bailey wrote: "In the Belmont, some say my own assertive early handling of my horse Eddington was meant to act as a spoiler, to wear Smarty Jones down, but anyone who thinks I was intent on spoiling the Smarty Part is way off-base. I ride to win, never to beat another horse, and that is exactly what I did with Eddington.

Trainer Mark Hennig and I had worked on Eddington’s focus through the spring because the horse had continually failed to put it all together. Mark put a very sharp work into him before the Belmont because our plan was to have him on the engine right away. We wanted him to know he was in a race the minute he left the gate. We hoped and believed that would keep him from becoming distracted the way he had before.

We had told anybody who would listen that we would put him in the game from the beginning and that is exactly what we did. If the jockey was paying any attention, he knew early pressure was going to come from him. Rock Hard Ten joined the fray as well.
There are no gifts in racing. Everything must be earned, especially Triple Crowns. In the end, Edgar Prado rallied Birdstone to a one-length victory over Smarty Jones in the final leg.

[Prado] even apologized, because he genuinely felt awful about depriving the sport of a much-needed superstar. But he was only doing his job. So was I."

Bailey said Eddington had limitless potential, but the light bulb hadn’t gone on yet, which was a shame because Eddington was a huge horse; tall, well built, an Adonis.

Eddington was a non-factor in the Preakness. He was too green. He never focused down the lane. So Bailey figured that in order to give the horse a chance, he needed to put an eyeball in Smarty’s sight line. Bailey said Hennig told him to get him in the race early.

“If you can get him to eyeball Smarty, get Eddington in gear and into his rhythm. Eyeball him.” In other words, try and break him.

Smarty broke from the far outside in the nine-horse Belmont field. He shot out like a cannonball and cleared the field. Alex Solis on Rock Hard Ten also had his sights on getting to the lead. Eddington did not break well; he steadied and it took him a hundred yards to get his bearings.

By the time the horses reached the clubhouse turn, Purge had the lead with Rock Hard Ten on his right hip. Smarty tracked them in third. Eddington was a length in back of Smarty before falling back another two.
Elliott didn’t like how Smarty felt. For the first time in all their previous races, something was off.

Smarty was too keyed up, and this race was a full quarter-mile longer than the Derby. There were 120,139 people whose collective energy stewed the air. Elliott needed to ration Smarty’s energy, but how? He didn’t want to discourage Smarty by holding him back? He wasn’t sure what to do at that point.

As the horses straightened out down the backstretch, Eddington quickly moved up to the outside of Smarty, as was the plan. Now Smarty had pressure from Purge and Rock Hard Ten on the left, and Eddington on the right.

Bailey rushed at him but backed off when he knew that Eddington had no chance. Yes, he got their eyeballs locked, but Eddington was the first to blink.

Some viewed this as a suicidal tactic, contrary to what Bailey said. Servis couldn’t believe what he was seeing but he could sense what was happening, he saw the writing on the wall. He got concerned when he saw
Bailey take Eddington back, then rush back at him again. Why give up ground then surge back in? “Damn, here we go,” he said.

At this juncture Elliott had a decision to make. It would be a decision he’d have to live with for the rest of his life. Tom Durkin, Belmont’s race caller, later said, “[Smarty Jones] was a victim of pilot error.”
Elliott only had a few seconds to make up his mind; nanoseconds.

Through his hands he felt Smarty’s aggressiveness, how unsettled he had become. Elliott felt the other horses gunning for him. He had ridden long enough to know by the first turn when things are good and when things are bad. This was bad.

No matter what he tried, Elliott thought that Smarty was running in a 100-yard-dash. He kept fighting him. He tried to get him to relax. Nothing worked.

In this case, it was the thousand-pound animal that won the battle of wills. Elliott lengthened the reins and Smarty tightened the slack and leaned into the bit. The crowd roared when Smarty took the lead away from Purge and Rock Hard Ten.

There was still an entire mile to run. By then Bailey hustled Eddington up into contention. He shook him vigorously and with every pump he kept Smarty keyed up. Rock Hard Ten rode up for a final push. He lasted fifty yards. He couldn’t hang with Smarty, nobody could.

As they ran around the far turn, you could see dozens of buses lining the roads beyond the track. Buses once full of people waiting for this moment, ferried from all corners of the Northeast. The United States was mired in two wars a world away.

The Red Sox hadn’t yet won the World Series. Ronald Reagan died on this day, and there ran Smarty Jones, quaking the earth. At last, Smarty Jones found himself alone on the lead.

He turned for home and over 120,000 people roared. All that lay before him was a channel of perfectly harrowed sand and loam, his hooves the first to dimple the manicured surface. The only horses ahead of him were the specters of the 11 horses that swept this series.

Smarty’s stride began to shorten, weakened by too many recent miles. Elliott peeked behind him and saw Edgar Prado, a long-time friend and colleague, aboard the equally small colt in Birdstone—moving up fast.

Servis knew that the middle half-mile of this race had taken its toll. He no longer felt confident. In fact, he couldn’t believe Smarty held on this long. “We’re life and death to hold on,” he said. He looked behind Smarty and saw Birdstone, the only colt who may have been smaller than Smarty Jones.

Tom Durkin’s voice strained with every stride.

“Birdstone is going to make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It’s been twenty-six years! It’s just one furlong away! Birdstone is an unsung threat! They’re coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on?! Here comes Birdstone! Birdstone surges past! Birdstone wins … the Belmont Stakes.”

The place became funeral quiet. Pat Chapman couldn’t believe how eerie the quiet was. She swore she could have heard a pin drop. This is the loudest silence she could recall. All those people, 120,000 of them, stunned quiet. She’d never forget the silence.

The winning connections: Edgar Prado, trainer Nick Zito and owner Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson, apologized. Winners; apologizing.
///

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014


The Smarty Party Begins in Earnest, Part IV


Smarty Jones entered the Kentucky Derby unbeaten having weathered all storms. After a swift, eye-opening breeze before the Derby, it was time to see if Smarty could carry the hopes of his rag-tag team to roses.

The morning had finally arrived and the rain cascaded in buckets. Servis stood inside his Churchill Downs barn and watched the radar with its green glob of precipitation over central Kentucky on this first Saturday in May, 2004. Let it rain, Servis figured. He wasn’t concerned. He had the best horse, and he knew it.

Servis had both his sons—Tyler and Blane—with him as they prepared for the long march from the barns to the saddling paddock, “the walkover.”

Finally they surfaced, walked out on to the track, over the muddy and sloppy and wet and heavy going. They walked past the screaming hordes. Women’s Derby hats were everywhere flowering the gallery in an animated bouquet. Televisions focused on the Derby favorite, this powerful warrior of a racehorse.

Smarty’s chestnut coat shined brighter than a diamond as he paraded in the mud. There wasn’t a better horse in the field of eighteen horses and Servis knew it. He was so confident that he turned to Tyler and Blane and said, with conviction, “They better be ready.”

///

Stewart Elliott sat in the jockeys’ room reading the past performances of horses in the race. Derby day is long and he had just one mount all day. His competition had mounts all day long filtering in and out, changing silks, washing down, coming, going.

They filed in and out and Elliott sat there watching them work. They had all these mounts but he had the mount, the most popular horse in America in the world’s most famous horse race—but he wasn’t nervous. No nerves at all. He was done with that nonsense.

What people didn’t understand is that he does this every day, has done it for 30 years. The only difference is not all the races are the Kentucky Derby. But in a way, they are the same.

Like the baseball player that has three to four at-bats a game over 162 games, an at-bat in the World Series isn’t the same as one in April. But, then again, it is the same to the well-disciplined athlete. Jockeys are the same in that way. So Elliott tells the truth, his truth, and the rest melts away. Don’t ask him to explain why; it just happens that way.

While Elliott got a leg up from Servis, Roy Chapman sat in a box by himself because he couldn’t make it down to the paddock. As an oxygen tank helped fill his lungs, Robert Clay, owner of Three Chimneys Farm, one of the world’s leading breeding farms, dropped by to say hello. Clay told Chapman what a special horse he had.

Chapman nodded that indeed Smarty was a special horse. Chapman later admitted that he would always remember this meeting and the indelible impression it left.

Down below, amidst a slurry of the depraved, thousands of fans surrounded the paddock. It was a wet mosh pit of sultry summer dresses and rain ponchos, yet the scene was electric, charged for detonation.

Servis’ instructions for his rider were simple: Go out and win the Derby. “Ride him like you own him and the rent’s due.” Servis’ eyes followed them out the tunnel and on to the track. Then it happened, as it always does to jockeys on Derby day.

When Elliott heard “that song,” as the jockeys call it, he got emotional. Elliott then realized exactly where he was at that point in time. He was wrong; the Kentucky Derby isn’t just another race. “The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home.”

Smarty jogged and warmed up along the track’s backstretch. He was behaving well beneath Elliott; was warming up well, felt confident. Elliott knew he was riding the winner if all went well. And that’s a big “if” in horse racing—an even bigger if in the Kentucky Derby.

The starting gate rests at the top of the home stretch, a gate similar to the one that almost killed Smarty. The horses for the 130th running of the Kentucky Derby entered the gate. Servis recalled how classy Smarty acted on the walkover and in the saddling area. Now he needed Smarty to just relax and not do a break-dance in the starting gate.

Through Servis’ binoculars, all looked calm.

The gate blasted open and Elliott gunned his undefeated colt to the front. A host of pursuers chased them. Nothing comes easily in the Derby. There are no easy leads. Lion Heart struck the front a furlong into the race and Smarty tucked into the middle of a flight of five, all racing hip-to-hip.

Smarty ran the most tactically challenging part of the race in good order. Many Derbies are won and lost in that first quarter-mile. Elliott knew this. “Stay in here for me, Smarty,” he communicated through the reins.

Looking through his binoculars, Servis’ watched his colt, his heart jackhammering, “Stay in there, Stu, stay in there.”

Smarty broke through that flight and sat down by the fence in fourth, getting dirty but out of trouble on that treacherous first turn. Smarty had found his rhythmic stride. The race had a mile left to run but Elliott thought he had the race won before he reached the backstretch.

Riding confidently, Elliott shifted Smarty to the outside and crept up to second place as they entered the far turn. Lion Heart, still on the lead, showed signs of fatigue and once the mud stopped spraying Smarty in the face, he leaned into the bit and Elliott knew he was sitting on nitro. He thought, We’re good; I’m ready when you are, buddy.

Smarty pulled even with Lion Heart with a quarter-mile remaining and Servis watched Smarty explode past Lion Heart and strike the front. Now Servis worried about a deep-closer named Tapit. The trainer fixed his binoculars on Tapit and saw him flatten out. “We’re lookin’ pretty good!” he said.

Smarty ran clear of Lion Heart and with no one left to catch there was just an open stretch of muddy dirt between Smarty, a $5 million-bonus and a garland of roses fit for the king of the three-year-olds.

“And here is the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977!” yelled race caller Tom Durkin.

Servis turned and hugged Roy. There were looks of incredulity. Servis’ son, Tyler, clung to Servis’ back like a koala bear and said, “I love you, Dad.”

Durkin said, “What a moment this must be for Stewart Elliott, a 39-year-old journeymen. He has just won the race of a lifetime.”

And they were just getting started.
///

John Servis drove away from Louisville having already put Smarty on a van back to Philadelphia. He was barely outside the city limits when he and his passenger heard a car horn. He looked over and people in a neighboring car along Route 64 gave them the thumbs up.

“They know who we are?” he asked.

“Of course they know who you are!” his passenger said.

Team Smarty Jones had just won the Kentucky Derby. The “Smarty Party,” as it was called, was just getting started. Billboard announcements, helicopter coverage and police escorts were about to become routine.

Smarty was a cult hero now. He was small. He was tough. He was the new Rocky of Philadelphia.
///

Smarty had two weeks to prepare for the Preakness so he didn’t need to do much; he just needed to stay healthy.

The entire country knew the name Smarty Jones. The Chapmans, though wealthy, still had working-class sensibilities, just like the owners of California Chrome. They experience life; they don’t stockpile possessions.

Their horse so captured imaginations that it moved Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly to write a tongue-in-cheek piece about how the horse affected him personally:

I’ve seen pampered, spoiled and coddled athletes before, but the ones I got stuck covering last week make me want to hurl.

Nobody ever tells them no. They get more strokes than an ICU. Everything has to be perfect or they go triple Liza.

No, not the Lakers. Not the Yankees. Not even the Williams sisters.

A group of athletes much worse. Thoroughbred racehorses. …

And even when you get them to the starting gate, nothing says they’ll go in. “They think they’re the biggest horse in the race,” says Churchill Downs official starter Roger Nagle. “Hell, it’s no wonder. These trainers never make ’em do anything they don’t want to do. You pull on Smarty Jones and he just backs up!”

Of course, once he was in the gate last Saturday, Smarty Jones didn’t back up. He ran his perfect record to seven for seven. In fact, he’ll probably go on to win the Triple Crown, make more money than ExxonMobil, retire immediately and wait for the preheated babes to start showing up.

Jeez, I hate Smarty Jones.

Smarty even made the cover of this issue of Sports Illustrated. A magazine that has fifty-two covers a year spent one of them honoring a horse.
###

Through it all, through the entire circus surrounding Smarty, Servis never forgot that Smarty would’ve been—should’ve been—trained by his friend Bob Camac. A Philadelphia Inquire story read, “The only time trainer John Servis has gotten choked up publicly during the whole run was when someone brought up Camac’s name a couple of days before the Derby.

Servis said he hoped he could just ‘get the job done for him.’”

He did, and when he got to his barn in the days following the Derby, he was surprised to see tents up. Servis looked around, confused. Someone finally explained: “That’s for the media.”

“Those tents?” He hadn’t realized that his horse was a national story now—not just a horse racing story, not just a Philadelphia story—but America’s story.

By 7 a.m. there might have been 100 reporters outside his barn. He didn’t know what to do. He had fifty horses in training and was being pulled in every direction. He needed to make his other clients feel as lucky as the Chapmans. That’s a trainer’s civic duty.

He was being peppered with questions: Talk to this guy. Talk to that woman. Boom. Boom. Boom. Finally, his wife Terry stepped in: “I’m taking over here. You train your horses.”

Servis got back to work and everything else went through Terry. She set up the interview times for reporters to meet with him. They kept things as normal as possible in light of the circumstances but felt obliged at the same time to be accommodating.

In a world so prone to secrecy, seamy underbellies, elitism and classism, the Smarty Party was a grassroots campaign. Servis figured he would just ride it out, get on that surf board and glide it into shore. The business had been good to him. What better way than to let everyone on board, an all-expenses paid, one-way ticket ride to the Triple Crown?

When Smarty arrived at Pimlico for Preakness week, like all Derby winners he had the bull’s eye on his back. They would be gunning for him. And “they” were every trainer, jockey or horse in the race.

Servis settled Smarty in his stall then allowed him to walk up and down the stakes barn at Pimlico. He saw the other Preakness horses from close range. He saw Eddington, trained by Mark Hennig, who was seventeen hands tall.
He saw Rock Hard Ten, equally as imposing. These colts looked the part. But he also knew that while his horse lacked physical stature, his confidence and presence would prevail.

Just over a week ago, Smarty ran 1 ¼ miles. He was dead fit and Servis didn’t push him too much. “I want him feeling fresh, thinking he’s the badass thing in town,” Servis said.

That’s the thing about alphas, they know they’re the biggest, baddest, mothers on the planet. When Smarty put on the tack—his armor—he was ready for war, primed to drag the field like Hector before the city’s walls.

While Smarty waited on the Pimlico Race Course backside munching on hay and resting up for his big race, the scene on the Pimlico infield devolved into a ring of depravity. Mardi Gras was Easter Sunday Mass compared to this scene. Golf carts ferried off more slovenly drunks all day, right up to Preakness post time.

Smarty walked under tack on the grass course awaiting his partner, Stewart Elliott. Smarty, wearing the orange Post 7 saddlecloth, began to inflate; chest heaving, ears flicking every which way. He’d soon face his front-running Derby rival Lion Heart.

There were the new shooters with fresher legs—Eddington and Rock Hard Ten—that Smarty hadn’t faced in the Derby for lack of graded earnings. It didn’t matter; bring it; Smarty was cranked and ready to go.
He was pin-pulled grenade.
///

Smarty Jones broke so fast in the Preakness that he cleared the field within a few strides. Lion Heart was hustled to the lead by Mike Smith and angled out ever so slightly to make Smarty take a wider path around the clubhouse turn. It’s called race ridin’.

Lion Heart cleared the field on a loose lead but wasn’t relaxed. His stride was labored. The weight of the Derby two weeks ago sapped much of his power. He just wasn’t the same. One length back was Smarty Jones, just loping along carrying Elliott in what must have felt like an open gallop.

Elliott rode a few cheaper horses in the weeks leading up to the Preakness. Jocks still need to make a living and keep their home track customers happy. Jockeys don’t just swoop in for big races then take weeks off.

Stewart rode one low-level horse for Servis on Preakness day. People asked him how those horses differed from riding Smarty. “If you had a Volkswagen and a Ferrari, which one are you going to take?” Elliott said.

He rode his Ferrari with confidence knowing that Lion Heart would come back to him. The path on the rail opened almost on call. Elliott veered Smarty into the open dirt and shook the reins.

Smarty combusted; there’d be no catching him. Not from the tiring Lion Heart, not from the monsters left in his dusty wake. Smarty’s only race was against the clock as he opened an insurmountable advantage.

Elliott went to the stick once to keep Smarty on his best behavior. His high-flying Italian sports car hit the wire a record 11 ½ lengths ahead of Rock Hard Ten. It was a Preakness Stakes record that remains to this day.

Rival jockeys couldn’t get over it. Said one: “I had another gear left, unfortunately, when I hit the other gear Smarty Jones hit about four more gears. He reminded me of Secretariat, the way he pulled away.”

Servis couldn’t believe what he just witnessed … again. Smarty was now 8-for-8. He came through for America. Servis figured that the Preakness would be Smarty’s greatest challenge, and he delivered, he brought it.

When Servis watched the replay he noted that Smarty handled it so easily. Maybe he could win the Triple Crown. Maybe he could be a real folk hero. Smarty shouldered the weight of an embattled city, one starving for a champion not named Rocky.

This one was real.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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