Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Smarty Goes to the Races, Part 111


Trainer John Servis skeptically received Smarty Jones into his care. He put Smarty to the test and thought he had something special. But then Smarty nearly died after a nasty accident with the starting gate.

Smarty’s eye and his skull recovered in a timely fashion allowing Servis to move on the next stage in his development. Once the colt showed that he’d be ready for the races, Servis studied the condition book for suitable races.

He chose November for Smarty’s unveiling, his first taste of competition. After many months of preparation, it was time to see how Smarty would respond to serious competition. He entered the Philadelphia Park starting gate, the Chapman’s home track.

The Chapmans were snowbirds and by this point they already would be in Florida. Roy, tethered to a wheelchair with an oxygen tank in tow didn’t see the harm in getting to Florida on time. The prospects of warmth sounded so good, so welcoming. But Pat had this feeling about Smarty and wanted to watch him race. Something inside her believed the colt would do something special. Call it divine inspiration or dumb luck, the

Chapman’s were not about to miss Smarty’s debut.

Trainer John Servis skeptically received Smarty Jones into his care. He put Smarty to the test and thought he had something special. Then Smarty nearly died after a nasty accident with the starting gate.

Smarty’s eye and his skull recovered in a timely fashion allowing Servis to move on the next stage in his development. Once the colt showed that he’d be ready for the races, Servis studied the condition book for suitable races.

He chose November for Smarty’s unveiling, his first taste of competition. After many months of preparation, it was time to see how Smarty would respond to serious competition. He entered the Philadelphia Park starting gate, the Chapman’s home track.

The Chapmans were snowbirds and by this point they already would be in Florida. Roy, tethered to a wheelchair with an oxygen tank in tow didn’t see the harm in getting to Florida on time. The prospects of warmth sounded so good, so welcoming. But Pat had this feeling about Smarty and wanted to watch him race. Something inside her believed the colt would do something special. Call it divine inspiration or dumb luck, the

Chapman’s were not about to miss Smarty’s debut.

On November 9, 2003, Smarty broke like a shot and rocketed straight to the lead. He set blazing fractions but it didn’t take a toll the way a hot pace can, quite the opposite; he won by daylight.

Pat couldn’t believe her eyes. She knew the talent was there; everyone knew. But he exceeded everybody’s expectations. By the time the race ended, Pat Chapman’s heart was in her throat.

Servis noted the ease with which Smarty won and entered him in a stakes, a major jump in competition and class 13 days later. Better to see now just how much zip this colt really has. Roy figured that now was a good time to head south, no need to delay any further. They had seen his maiden win and we can see him run on television in Florida. Seventy degrees in Boca Grande, or 40 in Philadelphia? Pat said, “We’re not leaving,”

Pat said. “I want to watch him race.” What could Roy do? Pat joined Servis in his box to watch the race. Roy, because of the wheelchair watched on the lower level.

Smarty took off and Servis reacted: “Oh, no, oh, no.” Smarty had run his opening quarter-mile in 21 4/5 seconds, a speed blitz. Pat wondered what Servis was seeing that she wasn’t. Can it be that he can’t carry his speed all the way to the finish?

“Oh, no, oh, no,” Servis again exclaimed; a half-mile fraction of 44 1/5 seconds. He couldn’t believe what Smarty was doing nor what he might be capable of doing. It turned out he was capable of six furlongs in 1:08 3/5 seconds. Each fraction was slower but the margin was widening.

First he was in front by five lengths, then 10, and he kept running and widening, winning by 15 lengths. Servis and Pat excitedly ran down to meet Roy, who appeared breathless from the excitement.

They all went to the winner’s circle to their undefeated colt, posed for the photographer, their smiles wider than the Walt Whitman Bridge.

“This may be our Derby horse,” Servis told them.
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The trainer had just one concern left, but it was a weighty one: Smarty hadn’t raced around two turns, and horses can’t be considered Triple Crown timbre until they can handle two turns. It’s a bubble-burster. Servis needed to dampen the excited owner’s Derby aspirations sooner rather than later.

“Before we get too excited,” he told them, “we need to see if he can get two turns.” There was a race at Aqueduct in Queens, the Count Fleet Stakes, at the start of the new year. It met the bill: two turns. Smarty Jones still had something left to prove.

On January 3, 2004, Smarty broke a step slow away from the barrier and was third going into the clubhouse turn. Two horses went to the front as Smarty’s jockey, Stewart Elliott, was biding his time in third. As they turned for home, Elliott let out the reins and in a matter of strides, the team surged past the leaders and widened to a seven-length win.

It wasn’t a long race—just over a mile—but Smarty answered the two-turn question. The Kentucky Derby was now four months away. Still a dream but suddenly one that was within reach, no longer beyond the realm of possibility.
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Days were short and it was cold in the northeast and it was time for Servis to consider shipping Smarty south—to Florida or Louisiana or Arkansas—where the temps would be more moderate.

The trainer began to think that Smarty was a horse of destiny. He survived what might have been a fatal injury in the starting gate. On the day the colt was to be shipped to Arkansas, four vans arrived on the backstretch to take many horses to Hot Springs. Smarty was loaded on the first van, arriving in Arkansas without incident.

The other three were caught in an ice storm in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and had to wait things out on the side of the road while Smarty was waiting for his dinner. There was something happening here and what it was seemed to be getting clearer by the day.
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Servis then backed off on Smarty’s training. The colt had raced hard since November and it was smart to give him time off to rest and grow. Finally, the Southwest Stakes was approaching, a good spot on the Oaklawn calendar to get him started, letting the trainer gauge Smarty’s conditioning and development. If all went well, the Rebel Stakes would be next, then the big one, the Arkansas Derby.

Servis decided he would take the Arkansas route to Kentucky. All Smarty had to do was earn enough money in graded stakes to make the Kentucky Derby cut; only the Top 20 would make it. At that point, Smarty’s graded bank account had as much money as a college first year, which is to say nothing.

The closer Smarty got to his Oaklawn debut, the more pressing the need to sit down with the Chapmans, their enthusiasm and expectations off the charts at this juncture. “He’s probably going to lose his next race,” Servis told the owners. “He’s not 100 percent fit and the last thing we want is for him to peak too soon. He’ll probably get tired.”

Smarty Jones fatigued in the Southwest, but won anyway. Even a tiring Smarty running on 75 percent capacity proved superior to the three year olds he was facing. The entire team was as shocked as anyone by the effort, but the diminishing three-quarter length score had people question whether or not he could get the Kentucky Derby’s mile and a quarter.

It was an honest question; the Southwest was just eight furlongs, the biggest dance of all was 10 on May’s first Saturday.

A reporter approached Servis, questioning Smarty’s stamina and ability to get the Derby distance. “When this horse is done we’ll talk about him like he’s Seattle Slew,” Servis said.

“Really?” the reporter asked.

Seattle Slew was the last undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby and only horse to win the Triple Crown while undefeated. Slew was a monster; physically dominant, imposing and with an attitude to match.
Servis thought, yeah, when this horse is done we’ll talk about him like he’s Seattle f.....g Slew.
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Smarty went on to win the Rebel Stakes with ease. He was progressing yet he hadn’t peaked. And it wasn’t only about Kentucky Derby glory. Smarty Jones was in position to win a $5-million bonus offered to any horse that won the Oaklawn Park three-year-old series and the Kentucky Derby.

Despite the accolades and an undefeated 5-0 record, Smarty Jones needed to finish second or better in the Arkansas Derby to qualify for the big dance. It was the only way to ensure that he would have enough earnings. He drew the far outside post in a big field, just one more hurdle for a horse that almost died in a starting gate before he even got to the races.

Stewart Elliott, Smarty’s jockey, later admitted it was the most nervous he had been during the entire Triple Crown series. Elliott had been on Smarty since his first race and knew he was special enough to go all the way. His one and only concern was whether or not Smarty would save his speed and ration it over the course of a very long race.

The Arkansas Derby was the first $1 million-race in which Elliott had ridden. He had thousands and thousands of races of experience, but this was different. This was the big time, the majors, and he of all people sat on the most coveted horse. No doubt other jockeys and their agents would be watching, no doubt.

If Elliott choked on such a live mount he could easily get pulled for a Hall of Famer to be named later. Pressure? What pressure?

Though his mount was unbeaten, Elliott couldn’t shake the nerves. He prepared and prepared some more, checking the other horses in the field to see just how he’d have to run. Elliott knows a horse has to have ability, that’s key, but also needs versatility. Smarty was a speed demon at first but by now he had learned to rate, ration his speed, and turn it loose when Elliott floors it. But

The jock was confident. He knew that Smarty would do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted him to do it.

And that’s how Smarty and Elliott won the Arkansas Derby and went into Kentucky undefeated. He made it look so simple, like money in the bank.
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Due to noisy construction at Churchill Downs, Servis elected to send Smarty to Keeneland in nearby Lexington, about an hour from Louisville. He wanted a laid back, quieter place for his colt to get settled, to come into himself prior to the biggest race of everyone’s career. He had the favorite heading into the Derby. The fewer distractions, the better. Maybe that’s what the trainer needed as well.

Damn, if only Smarty would just train better. Ever since his arrival at Keeneland he just never took to the track. Like some tennis players prefer clay to grass, Smarty didn’t adjust to Keeneland’s dirt. Of all times to be having trouble with a surface?

Smarty had raced in Pennsylvania, New York, and Arkansas, but Kentucky was throwing him off his game. All those races, all those miles, all those wins, and now he won’t train well? It’s now less than three weeks to the Derby.

Smarty’s exercise rider returned to the barn after galloping the horse and told Servis, “He’s not traveling the same, he’s not as aggressive. He doesn’t like the track.”

The skies blackened and it rained all that night. Servis went out the next morning on his pony to get a sense for how a horse might feel on the muddy terrain. He decided to send Smarty to the training track to watch him gallop. He looked fine but figured it was time to move to Churchill Downs; get him a feel for the Derby surface and construction be damned.

They arrived at Churchill and Servis let Smarty unwind. He breezed him five-eighths of a mile on the Monday before the Derby. He looked down at his stopwatch and knew his horse was just fine now. He went 58 and 2/5ths, his ears pricked the entire way.

The rider told a relieved Servis, “He’s back, and he’s better every day.”

“If we get beat, we’re getting beat by a better horse,” Servis said. But his overarching thought was that only Smarty could beat himself.

He was the best horse.
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Written by Brendan O'Meara

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