With Stewart Elliott being named the winner of this year’s prestigious George Woolf Award and with Smarty Jones’ birthday on Tuesday, Feb. 28, it rekindled memories of those glorious five weeks in racing and Triple Crown history that will endure for as long as the sport’s great Cinderella stories are recalled. Here then is a behind-the-scenes account of Smarty Jones’ Triple Crown as it happened, not so much about the races themselves, but the many unforgettable moments that unfolded during Smarty’s brief but magical reign. We actually start backward, recalling its aftermath on a dreary spring morning in Bensalem, Pa., in 2007.
A cold, early April rain beat against the sheet-metal rooftop of Barn 11 on the Philadelphia Park backstretch. Inside, the shedrow was eerily empty for 8 a.m., normally a peak hour for activity. But on this morning, not a horse or person stirred. Then, a sole figure appeared around the corner of the shed, pushing a wheelbarrow. Groom Thelma Aguila, the only employee of trainer John Servis on duty, was making her morning feeding rounds.
This was a Wednesday, the “slow day” in Servis’ barn. After the horses walk, the barn shuts down, and the only sounds are the horses nickering for their breakfasts. Peering over the webbing in Stall 38, unaware of the hallowed ground on which she stood, was the 4-year-old filly Missile Warning. Three years ago, this was the home of one of the most exalted equine heroes Thoroughbred racing has ever known.
Yes, it’s been three years since those glorious, frenzied days when Smarty Jones ruled the racing universe and captured the hearts of a nation. Who can forget those two surreal Saturday mornings between the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and Preakness and Belmont when approximately 5,000 and 10,000 fans, respectively, jammed Philly Park just to watch Smarty gallop. “Smarty Mania” had swept the city of Philadelphia.
Now, Barn 11, although still adorned with two Smarty Jones banners, is once again just another barn on the Philly Park backstretch. Gone are the TV and radio station helicopters whirring overhead. Gone are the hordes of media that made the unlikely pilgrimage here during the Triple Crown. And gone are the police escorts and Pentagon-like security.
For Servis, this is a time for rebuilding, but he hasn’t been the only member of the Smarty Jones team who has had to make major adjustments following Smarty’s premature retirement. Exercise rider Pete Van Trump, groom Mario Arriaga, and assistant trainer Maureen Donnelly are no longer with him. Only foreman and hotwalker Bill Foster and exercise rider and assistant Bobby Velez remain.
Van Trump gallops a few horses in the morning for trainer Patricia Farro, and helps out his girlfriend, trainer Diane Day, doing chores around the barn. On most afternoons he heads up to jockey Stewart Elliott’s farm in Lambertville, N.J., and takes care of the 20-acre establishment while Elliott is away riding. Arriaga returned home and bought a coffee plantation in Guatemala with the money he earned from Smarty, and he now rubs horses for trainer Ramon Preciado.
Foster lost all the money he made from Smarty and took a part-time security job in the recreation hall on the Philly Park backstretch, and last fall returned to Servis’ barn as manager. In December, he was run over by a horse in the shed and has since undergone knee surgery and physical therapy, while collecting workmen’s compensation.
Smarty’s co-owner Pat Chapman has been trying to keep busy following the death of her husband, Roy, in February 2006. She divides her time between Bucks County, Pa., and Boca Grande, Fla., where she is involved in community work. She also has three horses in training with Servis.
To many, it seems like only yesterday that the name Smarty Jones was on everyone’s lips. One person who became caught up in “Smarty Mania” was Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.
“It was such a great story, for me personally and as a sports fan,” Rendell said. “I went to the Preakness and sat with the Chapmans. I’m a great football, baseball, and basketball fan, but when Smarty started blowing the field away, it was as thrilling a moment as I can remember in sports. The Belmont was an absolute zoo, and there were so many people from Philadelphia there. When they saw me in the stands, I stood up and led them in a cheer: ‘Gimme an S … gimme an M … gimme an A …’ It was crazy; people were going nuts.
“All I kept thinking was, ‘How are we going to have a parade for Smarty? You can’t put this valuable horse on a flatbed truck.’ The town was starved for a winner, and Smarty was our champion. I thought it was going to happen at the top of the stretch, but then it all began to unravel before our eyes. It was the saddest thing I can remember in sports. I was so depressed I couldn’t shake it off for weeks. But it was a great ride.”
Rendell credits Smarty Jones for playing a major role in the state getting slot machines. “As Smarty caught fire, and it hit home, he absolutely captured the imagination of the legislature,” he said. “All of a sudden horse racing was big in Pennsylvania, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Smarty got us the extra votes that we needed down the stretch, and that his tremendous run helped us pass the law.”
Servis still finds it hard to believe all that has happened since Smarty. “It took a while for it all to sink in,” he said. “It’s like the last three years have flown by. It just doesn’t seem like it was that long ago.”
He recalls driving with Stewart Elliott shortly after Smarty’s retirement and telling him, “You know, Stew, what this horse has done for horse racing, people are going to be talking about Stewart Elliott long after you’re dead and gone, buddy.”
Smarty was retired to Three Chimneys Farm, where he greeted hundreds of visitors each week. Perhaps his most special guest was 9-year-old Patrick Monroe from Long Island who was suffering from water on the brain. When he was 4, the tube he needed to move the water from his brain to his abdomen malfunctioned on Christmas Eve night and he awoke Christmas morning to the realization he was blind. Then, in late 2003, his father, a Long Island firefighter, passed away. Months later, Patrick discovered horses and began taking riding lessons at Pal-O-Mine Equestrian for kids with disabilities.
Patrick had found euphoria on the back of a horse and eventually would win numerous ribbons for riding. His only wish was to meet his favorite athlete, Smarty Jones. All he wanted to do was touch him. Through the Make-a-Wish Foundation and ESPN’s My Wish Series, Patrick was brought to Three Chimneys Farm to meet his hero. Wearing his Smarty Jones hat, he was taken to the horse by farm owner Robert Clay, and with a perpetual smile on his face, Patrick proceeded to stroke Smarty along his withers, on his neck and on the side of his head. He then was brought outside as Smarty was being turned out, so he could hear him galloping at full speed across his paddock. From the look on his face, he clearly could see the horse in his mind’s eye. Before leaving, Patrick was given a braided lock of Smarty’s mane, as well as other gifts. That lock of mane would be proudly displayed alongside his ribbons, a reminder of one of the most memorable days of his life.
Smarty has since stood at several different farms, from Pennsylvania to Uruguay for three breeding seasons, and eventually to Calumet Farm in Kentucky.
Although it sounds like a children’s novel, “The Legend of Smarty Jones” reads like a soap opera, complete with murder, misadventure, and debilitating illness. But most of all it’s a story about perseverance and a very special horse. As if riding in on the tail of the Seabiscuit and Funny Cide comets, Smarty Jones has carved his own niche in racing lore. And like “the Biscuit” and Funny Cide, he has transcended the sport of Thoroughbred racing, reaching deep into the heart of mainstream America.
The legend was spawned on Roy and Pat Chapman’s 100-acre Someday Farm in Chester County, Pa., where a chestnut colt by Elusive Quality out of I’ll Get Along, by Smile, was born on Feb. 28, the same birthdate as Pat Chapman’s mother, Mildred, whose nickname of Smarty Jones was passed on to the young horse. The prologue had been written.
But the story of the little colt with the children’s book name took a sudden detour when the Chapmans’ trainer, Bob Camac, who had picked out I’ll Get Along and recommended breeding her to Elusive Quality, was murdered in December 2001 by his stepson, who also killed his mother, Camac’s wife, Maryann.
With Camac’s death and Roy Chapman in ill health, suffering from emphysema, the Chapmans sold most of their horses, leaving themselves with only two Pennsylvania-bred weanlings, one of whom was Smarty Jones.
“When Bobby got killed, it took the starch out of Roy,” said the Chapmans’ former trainer, Mark Reid. The Chapmans decided to keep Smarty Jones after getting a call from their farm manager, telling them he thought the colt was something special. The decision was made to keep the horse and train him at Philadelphia Park. When Roy Chapman contacted Reid, now a noted bloodstock agent, and asked him about a possible trainer, he recommended his former assistant, John Servis. The wheels were now in motion. The fairy tale journey of Smarty Jones had begun.
One morning, well before Smarty had ever started, assistant Maureen Donnelly was on a young 2-year-old having his first gate-schooling session. She watched in horror as another of their colts, Smarty Jones, reared up, hitting his head on one of the iron bars that runs across the top of the gate.
Smarty Jones fell to his knees, blood pouring out of his eye and nostrils. “It was pretty messy,” Donnelly recalled. "The next day, we thought for sure he was going to lose the eye, because you couldn’t even see the eyeball. It was just the flesh coming out from inside the socket. He looked like something out of a horror movie."
The scene shifts to Clarksburg, N.J., location of the New Jersey Equine Clinic, operated by veterinarian Patricia Hogan, with founder Dr. Scott Palmer. Hogan watched the Derby with family members and several employees from the clinic, and when Smarty Jones crossed the finish line in front, “there was a lot of crying and screaming.”
Hogan has vivid memories of the colt who was rushed to the clinic looking so hideous they nicknamed him Quasimodo. “His whole face was horrible, and his left eye was so swollen it wasn’t even visible,” she said. "I really wasn’t sure if I could save it or not.” In addition, Smarty Jones had suffered multiple fractures of his skull, and the orbit (the circular bone that holds the eyeball) was broken.
But the colt, his head wrapped in bandages, showed a spirit far beyond that of most horses. It was that spirit that enabled him to be nursed back to health with the help of medication to reduce the swelling inside the eye socket. Hogan knew this was no ordinary horse when Smarty, despite all his injuries, walked off the van with a spring to his step and his head held high. After he returned to the track, everyone at the clinic followed his career closely, clipping out articles about him and posting them in the surgery room.
The next scene took place in the paddock at Philadelphia Park on Nov. 22, 2003. Smarty Jones had just won his career debut 13 days earlier, in open company, by 7 3/4 lengths. On this day, he was facing 10 opponents in the state-bred Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes. Standing in the paddock was Mark McDermott of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association. What he saw that day prompted him to start making phone calls, telling people about a very special Pennsylvania-bred colt who had renewed his enthusiasm for racing.
“There was this squirrel that owned the paddock at Philly Park,” McDermott said. “He’d walk right up to the horses, and people would feed him. When Smarty Jones walked in the paddock, the squirrel came over to check him out, like, ‘You’re on my turf now.’ Smarty jumped straight up in the air, with all four legs off the ground at the same time. He turned his body while in midair and lashed out with his hind legs … that was the last anyone saw of the squirrel for a long time. Smarty landed on all fours and calmly went about his business. It was the most athletic move I’ve seen by a horse. Then, he goes out and wins the Nursery by 15 lengths (in 1:21 4/5 for the seven furlongs) and gets a 105 Beyer Speed Figure. I knew right then this horse was something out of the ordinary.”
Smarty went on to sweep Oaklawn’s 3-year-old series of stakes – the Southwest Stakes, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby – putting him in line to collect Oaklawn’s first-ever $5 million bonus with a victory in the Kentucky Derby.
Smarty captured the Derby with authority on a sloppy track and a hero was born in the city of Philadelphia.
Hail the Conquering Hero
The full moon had all but faded from the morning sky, and a salmon-pink sunrise was now illuminating the tan sheet-metal barns on the Philadelphia Park backstretch. Inside Barn 11, peering out of his once-familiar Stall 38, was Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones.
That’s right, Kentucky Derby winner, Philadelphia Park. To many, the two may seem as closely related as the Belle of Louisville and the Liberty Bell, but there he was, his rich chestnut coat still glistening after a grueling, unforgettable four-month odyssey.
Gone were the lush-green grazing areas and airy barns of Churchill Downs. Outside Barn 11, life was as it had been back in January before he embarked on his journey into history. Horses ambled about, connected to automatic hotwalking machines. Exercise riders and grooms went about their daily chores, their thoughts light years away from the world from which Smarty Jones had just returned.
The night before, at around 9 p.m., Philadelphia’s conquering hero had made an entrance worthy of Julius Caesar returning from battle. With his van escorted by two Bensalem police cars, their sirens blaring, and a pair of TV helicopters that had followed him all the way from the airport hovering overhead, Smarty Jones’ arrival was announced well in advance.
Philadelphia Park did all they could to make his return home as pleasant and comfortable as possible. B.J. Sasser, the construction, carpentry, and maintenance foreman, put new plywood in the colt’s stall, and made sure everything possible was spotless. "We cleaned up as best we could," Sasser said. “I’ve been here 30 years and never even thought about having a Derby winner here. We just felt fortunate to even have one running in the damn race. Shoot, I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like if he wins the next two.”
Hanging outside trainer John Servis’ barn were two blue and white signs (owners Roy and Pat Chapman’s colors) that read, “Congratulations Smarty Jones.” Painted on a large flower box resting on the ground outside the barn were the words, “Home of Smarty Jones.”
Servis received the biggest surprise when he returned to his Bensalem home the night before. “You come around the bend to our street, and the whole way down the development, every single mailbox has got blue and white balloons,” he said. “And in front of our house is a great big sign that says, ‘Congratulations Kentucky Derby Winner Smarty Jones.’ I coach a little league football team, and everything was made up by the kids. There also was a big congratulatory wreath from the mayor (of Bensalem). Since I got home, it’s all finally starting to sink in. I get a little emotional when I start thinking about it.”
With hordes of media stationed outside the barn and up the grassy hill leading to the track, Smarty Jones strolled out of Barn 11 and headed on to the track in isolated splendor. After walking down the backstretch, the colt had a little half-mile jog with Servis, aboard stable pony Butterscotch, alongside before heading back to the barn.
Servis then met with the media for at least 45 minutes, answering all questions thrown at him with candor and eloquence. He summed up his home track and his horse best by saying, “We’re from Philadelphia Park, and even back to when we went to Oaklawn, it’s been, ‘Hey, he’s a Philadelphia Park horse; how good can he be?’ But he’s given everybody something to grasp on to. With everything that’s been happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, he’s been a bright light in the midst of a lot of dark stories.”
Baltimore Goes Wild for Smarty
It was a time for hugs and high-fives, as chants of “Smarty! Smarty! Smarty” resounded throughout Old Hilltop. Smarty Jones’ groom, Mario Arriaga, threw his arms around barn foreman Bill Foster and said, “My heart go boom, boom, boom.” That could have easily been the sound of the Pimlico grandstand rocking like it hadn’t rocked since a plain, bay colt named Seabiscuit showed up one November afternoon in 1938.
“Awesome,” said Foster, as he looked off in the distance for his horse. “He’s a runnin’ machine.”
Donna Chapman, daughter of Smarty Jones’ owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, was sobbing uncontrollably. “Oh, my God, I can’t believe it,” she said, cupping her hands over her mouth. “He blew everybody away.”
Yes, Smarty Jones had not only won the Preakness Stakes, he blew everybody away, winning by a spectacular 11 1/2 lengths, earning a monstrous Beyer Speed Figure of 118.
Also having difficulty holding back the tears was trainer John Servis’ wife, Sherry. “I’m so shaken,” she said, her voice quavering noticeably. “It’s just a gift from God.”
The previous chapter of the Smarty Jones saga ended with his victory in the Derby. Then came the “Seven Days in May.” That’s when the city of Philadelphia opened its heart to Smarty, and an instant love affair was born. The people of Philadelphia embrace their heroes like small-town folk. They turned the fictitious character of Rocky into a living, breathing legend. Now, in Smarty Jones they had the real Rocky, a four-legged brawler with a heart as big as the Liberty Bell.
On the Saturday following the Derby, the fans converged on Philly Park to watch Smarty gallop once around the track. They came, 5,000 strong, young and old. They came with cameras of all kinds and Smarty Jones hats and T-shirts. Young children sat atop the shoulders of their fathers straining to get a quick glimpse of this equine legend in the making. Many flocked to the table selling Smarty Jones merchandise, as a mob formed trying to get close to the table.
Servis’ fellow Philly Park trainers took time out from their daily chores and gathered along the outside rail on the backside to see the horse they all have dreamed about having. One of those trainers was Marty Ciresa, who was so excited his only regret was that he didn’t bring his camera. And this was a trainer who was preparing his colt, Little Matth Man, to take on Smarty Jones in the Preakness.
“This is just great,” Ciresa said as he watched the fans begin to gather across the track just after 8 o’clock. “You sit around here year after year, and everyone hopes and dreams, and you don’t think it could really happen. And then the guy a few barns down wins the Kentucky Derby. It’s a strange feeling. I want to win the Preakness, but I don’t want to beat him.”
On the front side, as fans filled the apron and lined up along the rail nine- and 10-deep, Philly Park CEO Hal Handel took pride in his track and the state of Pennsylvania. It was that pride that made Handel toss back a dart thrown at the state by Churchill Downs CEO Tom Meeker.
“After Meeker made a crack about Pennsylvania, I sent him a basket of Pennsylvania produce and other stuff, from scrapple to soft pretzels, and told him to get used to it,” Handel said.
Smarty Jones came out to a hero’s welcome, then put on a show galloping twice past the stands before returning to the barn. Although the show was short, everyone was thrilled to have gotten a quick look at this Philly phenom. Afterward, presentations were made in the winner’s circle by local and state dignitaries, and the following day, Rendell read a proclamation honoring Smarty Jones. The festivities concluded on Monday when Oaklawn Park president Charles Cella presented the Chapmans with a $5-million bonus check for winning the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby.
In the Preakness, Smarty Jones and Elliott, as usual, were poetry in motion down the backstretch and just continued to widen their advantage after easily disposing of Derby runner-up Lion Heart. “My horse was running so easy, I just took him to the inside and he did the rest,” Elliott said.
Smarty Jones’ power and class and smooth, effortless way of moving are something that hasn’t been seen in a long time. Gary Stevens made a good run to finish second with Rock Hard Ten, but could only admire the chestnut figure getting smaller and smaller off in the distance. “That horse is as good as any horse I’ve ever seen,” Stevens said. “He really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away. I asked my horse for another gear and he gave it to me, and I thought I had shot turning for home, but Smarty had seven gears left.”
Wild Times in Philly
Smarty Jones was now a national hero, and in those wild and crazy weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes, Servis threw out the first pitch at a Philadelphia Phillies’ game and Elliott opened the New York Stock Exchange. Servis attended schools in Bensalem to talk to the students. Chapman Motors set records in car sales, with some people stopping in just as if it was a tourist attraction. Hundreds of thousands of letters poured in, many from children, addressed to Smarty Jones or Servis or the Chapmans.
When Philly Park opened the track again for Smarty’s gallop, this time 10,000 came pouring through the gates, lined up outside since 5 a.m. As the doors leading to the apron opened, there was a mad dash, again with children atop their father’s shoulders, to secure a spot by the rail that looked as if Bloomingdales was running a 75-percent-off sale. Like the first time, tables were set up selling Smarty Jones merchandise, as huge throngs of fans had to muscle their way toward the tables.
The morning Smarty vanned to Belmont was a scene that transcended anything Thoroughbred racing has ever seen. At 9:30, with three helicopters disrupting the morning silence, two motorcycle police officers arrived, ready to escort Smarty on the first leg of his journey. Officer John Gladu removed his helmet, put on a Smarty Jones hat, then took out his camera and began taking pictures of the horse standing in a grassy paddock adjacent to the loading ramp. “Hey, I’m just a fan.” he said.
Soon they were off, as people all along neighboring Galloway Road stood in front of their homes photographing and videotaping the van as it went by. Others just gave a double thumbs up, several shouting, “Go get ’em, Smarty.” Two Bensalem police cars blocked traffic on busy Street Road, while an unmarked police car tucked in behind the van. At the tollbooth for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, all the toll takers gathered outside the booths, applauding and cheering for Smarty Jones as he moved through. Shortly after getting on the turnpike, the van passed a billboard that read, “Look out New York, Smarty’s Coming!” People even gathered on a grassy hill behind a turnpike rest area just to watch Smarty’s van go by. After leaving Pennsylvania, the van was picked up by New Jersey state troopers, who eventually turned it over to the New York police for the final leg of the trip.
Earlier in the week, Servis said Elliott was going to have to shine in the Belmont. “Let’s face it, we got a bulls-eye on our back,” he said. He proved to be right, as several jockeys, riding the main contenders, put constant pressure on Smarty, forcing him into a suicidal third quarter in :22 4/5. Smarty put them all away and came to the quarter-pole with a clear lead, as the record crowd of 120,000 erupted. But Smarty’s time of 2:00 2/5 for 1 1/4 miles was so quick, it would have won all but five Kentucky Derbys, and he still had a quarter of a mile to run. The rest as they is history.
Bone bruising resulted in Smarty’s retirement. There would be no happy ending to the fairy tale. Smarty was given a grand farewell at Philly Park, as the fans came one last time to say goodbye to a hero unlike anything seen before, whose remarkable story will live on in Philadelphia sports history and in the annals of the Turf.