This story appeared in the May 8, 2004 issue of The Blood-Horse, with several new graphs added.
Get out the cheese steaks and pretzels. It's party time in Philly. After Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones' stirring May 1 victory in the 130th Kentucky Derby, the City of Brotherly Love has found the real Philadelphia flyer.
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 loyalty, and a very special horse, the likes of whom has not been seen in this country for a very long time. As if riding in on the tail of the Seabiscuit and Funny Cide comets, Smarty Jones has carved his own niche in racing folklore. 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 they breed 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 Chappy," 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. End of Chapter One.
The wheels were now in motion. The magical journey of Smarty Jones had begun. Seven races and seven victories later, Smarty, as he is now affectionately known, has captured America's greatest prize; a $5 million bonus offered by Oaklawn Park; and the hearts of a nation crying out for heroes.
What was perceived to be the most muddled Kentucky Derby picture in memory turned out to be crystal clear after all. With severe thunderstorms rocking Louisville, and dark, ominous clouds hovering over Churchill Downs as the Derby horses paraded to the post, Smarty Jones emerged from the murk and the slop like a beacon of light.
The city of Philadelphia erupted, as if their beloved Flyers had just captured hockey's coveted Stanley Cup, minus the ticker-tape parade. When Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby (gr. II), the head-on finish shot took up almost the entire front page of the Philadelphia Daily News, with the headline reading: "Our Horse in the Derby."
After the Kentucky Derby, fans at Philadelphia Park let out a rousing ovation never before heard at the Bensalem track. While most of Servis' employees back at Philly Park watched the race from either the grandstand or track kitchen, assistant trainer Maureen Donnelly went home an hour before the race and watched it with her boyfriend.
Donnelly was still having a tough time believing what Smarty Jones had accomplished. It was Donnelly who was on a young 2-year-old having his first gate-schooling session last spring. 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 mouth and both 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 the Cream Ridge, N.J., home of veterinarian Patricia Hogan, who operates the New Jersey Equine Clinic in Clarksburg, 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, fractured his sinus cavities, and the orbit (the circular bone that holds the eyeball) was broken.
When Hogan received the report on Smarty from track veterinarian Dan Hanf, who explained to her the severity of the injury and how grotesque the colt looked, she feared the worst as the van pulled into the clinic.
Hanf had described the horse as being extremely swollen and with blood coming out of both nostrils. He told her this was “a real emergency and needing removal of a ruptured eyeball.” When the van arrived, Hogan went out to meet it, thinking that the horse might have difficulty unloading or be quite stressed. But as she walked out through the barn to the doorway, she heard "clip-clop, clip-clop," and here came Smarty “trotting” around the corner of the drive, dragging his handler, whinnying, and with his ears straight up. As awful as he looked, he was as bright as could be and actually acted, as Hogan said, “Like he was THE MAN and was trumpeting his arrival to the stable.”
“I was really shocked at his demeanor,” Hogan said. “His head was terribly swollen because the sinuses had leaked so much air through the fractured portion that it filled up like a balloon under the skin. The left eye was unrecognizable -- it was swollen shut with orange-red tissue bulging out of the slit where his eyeball should have been. It was that appearance that led all of us to believe he had ruptured his eye and required an emergency removal of the injured eyeball. But when we ultra-sounded his head, we saw that the eyeball was indeed intact underneath all the swelling and the discolored tissue bulging out was actually the inner lining of the socket that had prolapsed.”
Hogan injected all of the swollen tissue with medication using a very long needle directly into the eye socket and wrapped his entire head with a large pressure bandage to limit the amount of swelling and air that was seeping through all the fracture lines. Only the horse’s ears and his right eye were visible. The rest of his head was wrapped up tight.
“That was why we nicknamed him Quasimodo,” she said. “But his attitude was so impressive, and he was so intelligent. He had a real charisma about him and he was all about ‘fun.’ The way he looked at you and communicated to the other horses, and the way he carried himself, he was just so confident and exuded such star quality. He acted like the proverbial Big Man on Campus.
“We had him at the clinic for two weeks and I remember everything about him. He was a nothing 2-year-old at the time, but for some reason, he and all of us here knew he was special. That has to mean something. I examine a few thousand horses a year, and yet I remember every hair on this horse's head. Something had to be at play there."
When Smarty returned to Philly Park, any fears about his attitude toward training and the racetrack were quickly put to rest. Not only did he exhibit no psychological trauma from the injury, he couldn’t wait to get back to training.
After he returned to the track and began racing, everyone at the clinic followed his career closely, clipping out articles about him and posting them in the surgery room.
"I'm beside myself," Hogan said after the Derby. "It's unbelievable. He was such a special horse and I am so proud of him." End of Chapter Two.
The next chapter begins 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. The squirrel turned and ran, and no one has seen him since. 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 1:21.88 for the seven furlongs) and gets a 105 Beyer Speed Figure. I knew right then this horse was something out of the ordinary."
After the Nursery, Servis and the Chapmans began having visions of grandeur that would take them far beyond the realm of Philadelphia Park. Forget about being a Pennsylvania-bred and Philly Park horse; the Twin Spires were beckoning. Roy Chapman, head of Chapman Auto Group, had been ill with emphysema for more than 10 years, and his health was deteriorating. He required oxygen and a wheelchair to move about, and had recently come down with a case of pneumonia. So, when Servis planted the seeds of Derby roses in his head, Chapman said to him, "Do whatever you have to; just get me to the Derby."
Servis mapped out a plan where Smarty Jones would get his first two-turn test in Aqueduct's Count Fleet Stakes on Jan. 3, and then head to Oaklawn Park for the Southwest Stakes, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby. He felt so strongly about the colt's ability, he was confident with this plan, despite the fact Smarty Jones would not accumulate any graded stakes earnings until the Arkansas Derby. Everything he did before that would mean nothing if he didn't finish first or second.
With Oaklawn celebrating its 100th anniversary, track president Charles Cella came up with the idea to offer a $5 million bonus to any horse that could win the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby in the hope of luring America's top 3-year-olds to Oaklawn.
One victory after another followed. Smarty Jones captured all three of Oaklawn's Derby preps, and just like that, the pride of Pennsylvania was on the verge of winning $5 million and becoming only the fifth undefeated Kentucky Derby winner, and first since Seattle Slew in 1977.
The Derby trail had been in chaos from the start, with longshots winning most of the major stakes. Only Imperialism, trained by 21-year-old Kristin Mulhall, and Limehouse had been able to win more than one graded stakes this year. The picture cleared a bit on April 10 when top-ranked 2-year-olds Tapit and The Cliff's Edge captured the Wood Memorial and Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, respectively, the same day Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby. In the Rebel, Smarty had earned a Thoro-Graph speed rating that was the fastest ever given to a 3-year-old.
Offers to buy the colt, which had started months earlier, were now rolling in, and reaching figures well into the millions. Jockey agents from all over the country were hounding Servis, trying to get him to replace Smarty's regular rider, the Philly Park-based Stewart Elliott, even though he had ridden the colt perfectly every time. Servis remained loyal to his rider and stuck with him. The last Derby winner to have a first-time jockey and trainer was Spectacular Bid in 1979, when Bud Delp and Ron Franklin combined to win the roses.
After the Arkansas Derby, Servis sent Smarty Jones to Keeneland, where the atmosphere was quiet. On Thursday, April 22, nine days before the Derby, Smarty Jones arrived at Churchill Downs. Unlike most horses, he came charging off the van and strutted into Barn 42 as if he were announcing to all the occupants he was taking over, as he had done at the clinic the year before. Several stalls down, Imperialism, racing's other Cinderella story, was calmly nibbling on hay. On the opposite side of the barn was Todd Pletcher's 12-strong legion, including Derby starters Pollard's Vision and Limehouse, and Kentucky Oaks contender Ashado.
"The big dogs are on the backside," Servis said, as he helped get Smarty Jones settled in. "But I feel like I'm coming with a loaded gun. The way he charged off that van, he knows something big is in store."
On the Saturday before the Derby, Smarty Jones went out for his final work with jockey Willie Martinez up. By the time he was finished, all of Churchill Downs knew that this was no ordinary horse. With Martinez motionless throughout, Smarty Jones breezed five furlongs in :58 as if he were out for a morning stroll. His feet barely touched the ground as he glided smoothly over the Churchill strip. He was a powerhouse galloping out, and wasn't even blowing coming off the track.
Meanwhile, trainer Bob Baffert, who had withdrawn San Felipe winner Preachinatthebar from the Derby after an unsatisfactory work, was now in danger of losing jockey Jerry Bailey, who was to ride Baffert's main Derby hope, Wimbledon, winner of the Louisiana Derby. One more withdrawal and Bailey would jump back to Eddington, who was next in line to get in the field based on graded earnings. But Baffert had just seen something to make him forget his jockey woes.
"All I know is that after watching Smarty Jones work today, we're all in trouble," Baffert said. Nick Zito, trainer of Derby starters The Cliff's Edge and Birdstone, had seen Smarty Jones gallop at Keeneland earlier in the week, and all he could say was: "Whew! I can't believe the way he attacks the ground."
After the work, Martinez, who has been a major part of the Smarty Jones team, couldn't stop raving about the colt. "When you're undefeated, you know you're the man," he said. "I've been riding for 16 years and I know the feeling when a horse's confidence level keeps rising and rising. I don't think anyone really knows how good this horse is or how good he's going to be. Right now, the Smarty Jones puzzle is coming together and people are starting to see what this horse is all about. They look at his pedigree and knock him, and he just keeps kicking butt. What else do they want him to do?"
In his gallops following the work, Smarty Jones literally dragged his 170-pound exercise rider, Pete Van Trump, around the track like a rag doll. After two days of Van Trump being forced to stand straight up in the irons, trying to rein in this rampaging bundle of power and energy, Servis finally had to gallop alongside Smarty Jones on the pony, keeping a firm hold of him. As he returned with the colt one morning, all Servis said was, "Man, I wish the Derby was tomorrow."
"I don't know how to describe him, I really don't," Van Trump said. "There's just such an adrenaline rush to be on something like that. He's so headstrong; all he wants to do is train. No matter what we do we can't get him tired."
When entries were drawn, Servis selected post 15, with the dangerous speed horse, Lion Heart, winding up in post 3. That meant Smarty Jones would have to break sharply and contend with two outside speed horses, Pollard's Vision and Quintons Gold Rush, while Lion Heart was sure to take an easy lead into the clubhouse turn.
The morning before the Derby, Wimbledon scratched with a tendon injury and Santa Catalina winner St. Averil was withdrawn with sore feet. That meant Eddington and the lightly raced colossus, Rock Hard Ten, missed getting into the Derby by two days. They'll now try to catch up with Smarty Jones in the Preakness.
The Chapmans arrived at the barn later that morning and went over last-minute details with Servis. Their main concern was getting Roy to the winner's circle in his wheelchair. Roy, as feisty as his colt, told Servis through sandpaper-lined vocal cords, "I told them if he wins he is not going in that winner's circle until I get down there. They called me back and said, 'We'll get you in. We don't know how but we'll get you in.' The first time we spoke, the guy said, 'We're going to carry you across.' I said, 'Let me tell you something; you ain't carrying me across that damn track in front of 150,000 people.' "
Servis then jumped in: "Unless they carry you on their shoulders. Just watch they don't dump any Gatorade on you." Servis then had the Chapmans listen to a phone message he had received from Cella, who told Servis, "I just want you to know I got the other half (of the bonus money) covered, so go get the money, honey!"
Heavy rains Friday into Saturday morning turned the track sloppy, but track superintendent Butch Lehr managed to get it fast after several races. A little after 9 a.m. Lion Heart arrived by van from Keeneland. Trainer Patrick Biancone had thrown down the gauntlet by selecting post 3, letting everyone know his intentions. His instructions to jockey Mike Smith were short and simple: "Come back with your silks clean."
At 4 p.m. a thunderstorm of biblical proportions swept through Louisville, quickly turning the track sloppy again. As the rain whipped through Barn 42, flooding the entrance, both Servis and Mulhall welcomed the prospect of a sloppy track. Smarty Jones and Imperialism never turned a hair as loud claps of thunder rocked the barn.
Finally, the rain let up, and it was time for the pieces of Derby 130 to come together. Smarty Jones went off as the 4-1 favorite, followed by Lion Heart at 5-1, Tapit at 6-1, and The Cliff's Edge at 8-1. Up in their box, Servis turned to Roy Chapman and said, "Chap, whatever happens, we've had a great ride." Chapman couldn't agree more, and simply replied, "Absolutely."
As expected, Lion Heart shot to the lead. Smarty Jones had a clean break, but was caught in tight quarters between Read the Footnotes and Pollard's Vision as they charged by the stands the first time. Elliott was able to bull his way through and took up a comfortable position just outside Pollard's Vision and Quintons Gold Rush as they headed around the turn after a stiff opening quarter in :22.99. Lion Heart continued to lead, easing two lengths clear of the battling threesome through a half in :46.73 over a track that was a bit slick and sticky.
Behind them, the closers were trying to get their footing, but no one was able to make any headway down the backstretch. Quintons Gold Rush was the first to retreat, as Read the Footnotes rolled past Minister Eric into fourth. As they hit the far turn, the three-quarters in 1:11.80, Elliott had Smarty Jones in gear and he began cutting into Lion Heart's lead.
Around the turn, The Cliff's Edge was making a run from far back, while Imperialism was beginning to roll, weaving his way between horses. Limehouse was improving his position along the rail, outrunning Borrego to his outside. But Lion Heart was still going strong as Smarty Jones moved in for the kill nearing the quarter pole. The pair had opened a four-length lead on Read the Footnotes, who was unable to sustain his move.
Turning for home, Smarty Jones, who was racing on Lasix for the first time, had Lion Heart measured, as Elliott shook the reins at him. Kent Desormeaux gave Imperialism a crack of the whip left-handed at the five-sixteenths pole, and steered him sharply to the outside where he likes to run. But he was too far back to make any impact on the two colts slugging it out on the lead.
Elliott hit Smarty Jones twice right-handed, then switched to two left-handed whips and two more right-handed. By the sixteenth pole, Smarty Jones was clear of a gutsy Lion Heart and splashing his way into history. He crossed the wire 2 3/4 lengths in front, with Lion Heart 3 1/4 lengths ahead of Imperialism, who in turn was two lengths clear of Limehouse. The Cliff's Edge, who threw two shoes in the race, had little punch in the stretch and had to settle for fifth. The time for the 1 1/4 miles was 2:04.06.
Roy Chapman had to sit down and take several deep breaths before embarking on the longest journey to the winner's circle in Derby history. But there was no way he was going to miss out on the moment of his life. As the signal was given to bring in the horse, Servis quickly jumped in. "No, leave the horse," he said. "This man needs to be in the picture."
It was several minutes past 6:30 when Chapman finally was brought out from behind one of the hospitality tents after being led through the tunnel to the infield. When the large entourage waiting in the winner's circle saw him, they let out a roar, with many of them raising single roses over their heads. As Chapman was wheeled in, they shouted, "We want Chap. We want Chap."
Pat Chapman looked numb as she made her way to the media pavilion. "Actually, I slept well last night," she said. "I was a little nervous this morning, but I said, 'You know what? What's the worst that can happen?' We won't win, and I can handle that. And then I calmed down."
While the Chapmans and Servis were celebrating at the Kentucky Derby Museum, Kristin Mulhall was getting ready to leave, having to catch an early flight back to California the following morning. Although she was feeling pride and elation, she wasn't too eager to face Smarty Jones again in the Preakness. "I don't think we can beat him going a mile and three-sixteenths," she said. "That horse is a freak."
Smarty Jones showed no signs of having just raced a mile and a quarter, as he kept digging into his hay rack and butting it with such force it would fling back and hit him in the face. The following morning, his feed tub, as usual, was licked clean.
Smarty Jones, his Kentucky Derby odyssey over, now ships back home to Philly Park, where Donnelly and the crew wait to give him a hero's welcome. "I can't believe this is happening," Donnelly said Sunday morning. "We're just little people from Philadelphia."
So ends the latest chapter in the Smarty Jones fairy tale. No one knows where it will lead, and which hallowed corridors of the heart and soul it will touch next. But it really doesn't matter. It has already woven an unforgettable saga in the vast tapestry of the Kentucky Derby and the Sport of Kings.