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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