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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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Story of Smarty Jones, Part II

After the murder of Bob Camac, the Chapmans sold off most of their horses. They kept two and one of them was Smarty Jones. He went to the farm and started showing signs of who he would become.

George Isaacs knows a good horse when he sees one and he watched a valedictorian that day. He figured Smarty could be good enough to win graded races at the sport’s highest levels—that much he knew. And who knows, maybe even something really important but he knew better than to get his hopes too high.

Isaacs knew Smarty had what it takes when Smarty dominated his paddock-mate on those sultry Florida nights. A herd isn’t a herd without followers, yet a herd craves a leader and Smarty, maybe to a fault, showed that he needed to be in front.

Isaacs called Roy: “We’ve done our assessment,” he said. “You’ve got a special horse here, a graded-stakes kind of horse. [Of course], there’s no guarantee.”

Isaacs had been in touch with a wealthy man who wanted to drop six figures on a race-ready, electric two-year-old and he respected the fact that the Chapmans still wanted out of horse racing. “Now you’re in a position to sell this horse for quite a bit of money.”

“What’s a ‘quite a bit of money?’” Chapman asked.

“I know a banker who’s looking to buy a nice colt for $250,000 to $300,000, if I recommend the colt.”

“Sounds to me like you like the horse.”

“I know the kind of horses you had in the past and I can tell you that he’s among the best you’ve ever had.”

The Chapmans did have nice horses in the past, winning their share of races, but from what Isaacs was saying, maybe hanging on to this one horse might restore their faith in a game that reminded them so much of their late friend, Bob Camac. Smarty Jones was Camac’s creation. What better way to honor his memory than to race Camac’s brain-child?

“Well, we’ll just keep him,” Chapman told Isaacs.

No doubt Roy felt pressure from his wife Pat to keep the horse. All the horses were in Pat’s name. As much as Roy enjoyed haggling on price with Isaacs, ultimately the call was Pat’s. Smarty was her horse. Roy grew his fortune as a car salesman and Pat figured Roy would like nothing more than to sell this equine automobile and move on to next year’s model. Roy tried to convince Pat to listen to offers. “There’s no need,” Pat said. “The horse is not for sale.”

Smarty traveled north for the summer. Waiting for him was his trainer John Servis, a grinder, a career horseman. Servis’ voice sounds as if it were scrubbed by sand paper. He has weathered skin, sandy blonde hair and the smile of a man hiding a secret he knows you want to know. He had received word that this Smarty Jones horse had some zip. Lots of horses have zip in the mornings but turn into morning glories by lunchtime.

Servis understood that Smarty would’ve been trained by Bob Camac, a friend on the backside at Philadelphia Park. No matter what the horse was capable of, Servis knew that his first obligation was to the Chapmans, but he’d have to train him for his late friend, too.

Servis was a relative unknown outside of the mid-Atlantic region. Still, he was no stranger to nice horses. He had three Grade 1 winners before Smarty, but it still kept him far away from the spotlight. In 2000 he trained a filly, Jostle, who was a runnerup for the Eclipse Award, racing’s highest honor. Working with Jostle taught Servis the importance of patience and good management. The more talented the horse the more calculated its racing campaigns must be.

But patience is always the key. Some rise as fast as fighter jets; others mature at about the same rate as a bamboo tree. And Servis waited a long time for Jostle. The filly looked the part but she showed little ability as a youngster. As trainers like to say, the light hadn’t come on yet.

All trainers realize that slower horses could always drop down to find their proper level, but you could win a race and lose the horse in a claiming race. But the good ones are valued for their ability but more for their DNA; a bad race depreciates them faster than one of Roy Chapmans’s automobiles. Three bad races and you usually retire them.

Talented horses require more planning, training them with specific races in mind. The training regimen is ultra-important; playing catchup never usually turns out well for the horse, his owner or his trainer.
Hearing a horse cough—or worse—could be apocalyptic.

The horse van moaned into Philadelphia Park and Servis waited patiently for the horse that Isaacs, Roy, and Pat were all raving about. Smarty walked down the gangplank of the van, Servis took one look at him and thought, what’s all the fuss about? Servis was expecting a mustang; what he got was a pinto with a bad paint job.

Servis could not have been less impressed by Smarty Jones. The colt was small, immature, barely bigger than a pony. But what did he expect, really? Horses breeze like rocket ships before they even reach the racetrack and often flame out as they mature, and it’s the trainer’s fault that the horse didn’t blossom, didn’t develop. That killed Servis, but that was part of this training game.

The sport had taught Servis to reserve judgment. They’re just horses until they prove to him otherwise.

When Servis receives what is supposed to be a nice horse, when it’s time to breeze he puts the horse on the fence, asks them for speed and requires that they learn how to fight in close quarters. He makes them feel the heat of competition because it’s nothing compared to what the horse will face in the afternoon. It’s better to find out early what you’ve got. No sense in unnecessarily drawing out hope.

Servis tacked up Smarty, fixed the bridle, and gave the rider a leg-up. The colt jogged out onto the oval and began his warm up. Servis noticed something right away, and liked what he saw: He noticed how the colt pumped himself up, growing in stature like some equine Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. That’s instinct, awareness, swagger.

Still, Servis and his assistant leaned against the rail waiting for disappointment. He can’t be that special, can he? They watched Smarty accelerate and break off. Collected with his ears pricked, his chestnut mane flapped with each stride as he breezed down the lane. He skipped over the dirt as if his feet were winged.

They looked down at their watch and looked at each other. “Wow,” said Servis’ assistant “somebody might finally be right.”

Horse are flight animals, prey. They evolved into one of the largest mammals on the planet, possessing both speed and endurance. The horse’s design works well in an open field where it can graze then outrun predators hiding in the tall grass if necessary.

Horses aren’t meant to be confined, cloistered, caged animals. And those conditions nearly killed Smarty Jones.

Time had come for Smarty to get acquainted with the starting gate, as all green, raw horses must. The gate is about as unnatural an environment as it gets for a grass-eating, prairie-grazing mammal. Its metallic jaws open on the back end and the horse slides in, its haunches rubbing up against the padded inside barriers. Directly in front of its nose is a door latched shut by magnets. It’s MRI-machine tight.

An assistant starter stands like a spider inside the gate’s metallic webbing. Atop the horse is its rider. It’s like being inside a tiny box, the metal roof wrapped in padding.

Smarty had his troubles with the starting gate. His actions indicated that he was uncomfortable from the moment he entered. He had trouble with the loading process and once inside he panicked, thrashed. In those tight quarters, Smarty reared up and smashed his head on a bar, his body rattling the cage.

The gate crew screamed and hustled over to the colt before he could do any more damage to himself. Imagine being a horse for that moment; inside its head as chaos, confusion, yelling and clanging surrounds you? Smarty collapsed after hitting his head, writhing about in the dirt with a fractured skull. His blood spilled like lava from a volcano.

The gate crew picked him up and Servis brought him back to the barn. Smarty’s eye looked terrible. Pat says the doctor who patched him up nicknamed him Quasimoto, the physically grotesque hunchback of Notre Dame. Smarty was broken but unbowed. He never missed a meal, not an oat, not a carrot. But it would force Servis to play catchup.

Instead of running in maiden allowances in the summer, he would need to wait until fall, late fall.

Servis is well aware that the incident could have killed Smarty. Hell, it nearly did kill him. But in hindsight Servis realized that it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. The healing time allowed Smarty to regain his faculties while maturing mentally and growing stronger with every passing day. Instead of five or six starts as a two-year-old, he would only have two, and that would prove vital.

Freshness is important for three year old development. But that would be months away. For now, Servis was tickled that Smarty had survived and that there were no abnormalities.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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