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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