Sunday, September 21, 2014

When Smarty Jones Shook the Earth

Until last weekend when the latest Kentucky Derby winner, California Chrome, shipped into Parx Racing, it had been a very long time since the old Philadelphia Park stepped onto the national stage. The first horse was a wonderful chestnut who got his start at the Bensalem Pa. track a decade ago, 2003 to be precise, when he began his career in the hometown of his owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, and his trainer, John Servis, who inherited the colt through happenstance via tragedy. The saga of Smarty Jones--from his career debut to his disappointing and controversial loss in the Belmont Stakes--has been revisited by HRI contributor Brendan O'Meara. It will appear here exclusively for the next six days. If you're unfamiliar with the story of this equine Rocky, you're in for a treat.--John Pricci, executive editor

Part 1

Bob Camac was a life-long horseman, the kind that thought 5 a.m. was sleeping in. In his sixty-one years on the planet he had memories of four Triple Crown winners—horses that won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes.

Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Nobody gets into training horses thinking they’ll win the Triple Crown, but it’s always a dream with every new crop of horses. Like a dimictic lake in spring, horse racing renews itself every year.

Just as other successful horsemen do, Camac went to the horse sales, advised his clients, saddled his horses, and won horse races. He studied pedigrees and crafted recipes for success. And when it came to bloodstock, he was a wicked alchemist.

Camac had a handful of great horses over the years, but never the big horse—the runner that brings notoriety and fame, the one that makes all those early mornings worthwhile. Until then, he had to keep elevating his stock from bad into good, from good into great.

On race day, he’d report to the paddock sporting his classic Johnny Unitas flattop and aviator sunglasses above a tan suit, replete with white shirt and tie.

Over the years, Camac was supported by a series of loyal clients like the Chapmans, Roy and Patricia “Pat” Chapman. For them, Philadelphia Park was home.

After being diagnosed with emphysema, Roy was confined to a wheelchair. Life compensated by supplying Pat with a boundless energy for life. Lou Grant would say she had spunk. The Chapmans were hopelessly in love, and horses were just one of their shared passions.

The Chapmans were blue collar in the way that Kentucky is blue blood. Camac advised them on the type of horses to buy and the horses to which they should be bred. They owned several broodmares that lived at their Someday Farm and Camac found a good match for I’ll Get Along, figuring that he’d breed her to the swift miler Elusive Quality.

Now that might yield a horse worth racing. Breeding is part science, part witchcraft but mostly luck, and Camac was mad scientist enough to make it all work.

From this pairing, a small, chestnut colt was born and Pat named him Smarty Jones, recalling her mother’s nickname. Smarty grew alongside his mother and wasn’t anything special at first, just a cute, twerpy foal; all knees and with the kind of energy that enabled him to buck in the paddock as if he had pogo-sticks for legs.

Camac just watched him, let him develop, and looked forward to training him one day; Someday, just like the farm.

On the morning of December 6, 2001, Camac awoke at his Salem County house in Oldmans Township in southern New Jersey, an easy drive to nearby Philadelphia Park where he trained his string. The sun had just come up, and Camac and Mayrann, his wife, sat on the porch feeling the chilly air on their faces.

Later that morning Wade Russell, Camac’s stepson and Maryann’s biological son, arrived at the property. He carried a shotgun in his hands as he approached the trainer and his wife. There had been a confrontation earlier and Russell was indeed intent on solving it.

Dennis Tanchak, one of Camac’s clients, had decided to move his wife’s horses from Camac’s stable to a smaller one. Camac had no problem with that; he simply wanted payment of $13,426, Tanchak’s outstanding balance for trainer’s fees.

Tanchak was confused. He said he paid. Camac said, no, he hadn’t received the check. Tanchak said to wait, that he’d run to the barn and grab a copy of the cleared check. Tanchak later handed the copy to Camac and the trainer’s face turned white.

Indeed, the stamp on the back of the check was Camac’s. The problem was that the signature on the back wasn’t his. The two spoke a few moments about who might have cashed the check.

Camac grabbed his briefcase and got up to leave. “I know who did it.”

It was Russell who stood before Camac with a shotgun leveled at the trainer’s chest. It was Russell, caught by his own family. And that wasn’t the extent of it. Russell had taken two other checks totaling $17,753 that had yet to be cashed.

There was no escaping the porch that, at the moment, was frozen in time. Life as they all knew it had changed. There they were, all of them trapped: Camac and Maryann by Russell, Russell by his crimes.

Imagine the fear. Imagine the pleading, imploring for reason, to no avail. Russell took aim and discharged the shotgun shooting Camac in the heart. Russell fired multiple shots at his mother, leaving both prone, red, lying on the back porch while horses grazed in a nearby paddock.

One of Camac’s farm hands ran three-quarters of a mile down the road to the Musumeci farm yelling for help. Anthony Musumeci and his son raced to the Camac property in their pickup trucks. They found Camac and Maryann on the porch. They called 9-1-1 at 8:34 a.m. The ambulance arrived, but it was a futile exercise.

State police stood guard at the gates of Camac’s farm keeping spectators away from the crime scene on the other side of the road. Otherwise, it was an ordinary morning in the rural countryside of southern New Jersey.

Horses grazed in the chill of a December morning. The only noise came from the cars humming along Interstate 295.

Almost without exception, people spoke fondly of Camac. They talked about a man who enjoyed the inquisitiveness of others, how their coming to him for advice made him feel needed, wanted, respected. Others commended his incredible horsemanship; his peers rarely claimed horses from him for fear that they couldn’t improve on his methodology because he had them spotted properly and was already getting the best the horses had to offer.

When the Chapmans learned that Camac had been murdered, they began soul searching, questioning whether or not they should leave the sport. It’s a game of black eyes and headaches, heartbreak and heartburn that no amount of antacid could cure. The Chapmans reached a point where they were looking for reasons to stay in, not get out.

Camac’s owners began spreading their horses among other trainers but the Chapmans thought it best for them to sell, getting out of this blasted game. Bob Camac was their trainer: No Camac, no horses.

Pat kept Camac’s number in her address book for some time after his demise. Roy finally made a decision. “Let’s get out of the business,” he said to Pat. Returning to the track would be a painful reminder of the tragedy.

They still had some broodmares and were in possession of two yearling colts: one by Halo’s Image, the other already named. He was Smarty Jones.

Roy called George Isaacs of Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Florida. Isaacs breaks yearlings and Roy wanted Isaacs to prepare the colts for racing or whatever came next. Isaacs also was also grief-stricken over the murder of Camac. He understood why the Chapmans might want to get out of the business. Roy asked Isaacs to sell both horses.

“It’s very difficult to sell them from Pennsylvania,” Isaacs told him. “Send them to Florida and I’ll roll up my sleeves.”

That January, the unnamed colt and Smarty Jones became yearlings but were still bluegrass green. Smarty was small but he would begin to bloom later in his yearling season.

The two colts had been together at Chapman’s farm up north so, Isaacs thought, why split them up? Smarty’s mate was a big colt, impressive to the eye, unlike Smarty. A runt, he wasn’t much to look at and failed to fire the imagination.

The two colts shared the same paddock each night at the Isaacs place. They ran around each other, into each other, away from each other, typical yearling behaviour. But when Isaacs checked on them in the morning, he noticed the unnamed colt came back littered with bite marks. He laughed. Smarty was kicking his mate’s ass in the paddock all night long.

Years with horses informed Isaacs that Smarty was undoubtedly the alpha male. Physical size had little to do with the giant residing within.

Smarty’s attitude commanded Isaacs’ attention. He saw that Smarty had a grace about him with a long, good-moving walk to match. Both were nice yearlings, he thought, but Smarty possessed DiMaggio-like fluidity of motion.

Equine athletes of a higher order advertise their abilities as easily as taking a breath: Like a baseball exploding off the bat; the good-moving race horse sounds different. They reach full speed in a matter of three bounds, just floating over the ground. Isaacs called Roy: “If I were you, do me this courtesy and let me train them up and sell them as two-year-olds.”

When they were ready for serious training, Isaacs escorted the colts to the track. He was anxious to see their speed work, gauge their ability, see what kind of money each might command. The Chapmans still were disinterested with horse racing, but they were about to be influenced by the kind of speed that takes one’s breath away.

When Isaacs tacked up Smarty, he inflated like a Roman gladiator. Isaacs watched them train. The unnamed colt was all knees and elbows, his legs failing to launch him into the rarified stratosphere of a good horse. He couldn’t get out of his own way. Horses are honest and they show their stripes early. Isaacs told the Chapmans that the unnamed colt would make a fine show horse, maybe a hunter jumper.

There were a hundred horses being broken that winter of 2003 and Smarty quickly asserted himself as the premier horse of that class. He carried his athleticism confidently. He was fluid, leaning forward, always on the bit but almost always wanting to do more. Smarty bowed his neck, put his head down and appeared to want to tug his rider into infinity.

At his core, Smarty’s mindset was to run and train hard. His limits were boundless. He had one speed; go. Isaacs recognized this and began the throttling down process.

As March became April, time had come for Smarty to breeze, nothing fancy, a simple work designed to expand the lungs and begin the conditioning regimen. Isaacs thought a quarter-mile would do, nice and easy, maybe a couple of furlongs in 27, 28. A two-minute lick would be plenty.

Smarty left the barn tacked up, the bit in his mouth, reins draping from the rings and threaded through the rider’s hands. Isaacs watched Smarty closely. The colt’s stride began short, more of a jog than anything. He gradually picked up speed and when he neared the quarter-pole, he broke off and Isaacs started his watch.


Smarty turned over his hooves at a rate Isaacs rarely sees. The rider had him in a chokehold, irons down, feet squarely on the dashboard, as the horsemen say. Isaacs couldn’t believe what he saw. The colt breezed with the grace of a prima ballerina, in total control, owning the athleticism of his body. He looked like he was going five seconds slower but the watch doesn’t lie.


Isaacs looked at his watch: 23 4/5 seconds.



Written by Brendan O'Meara

Comments (5)

BallHype: hype it up!

Page 1 of 1 pages