The Philadelphia Story: Eagles and Smarty Jones

The city of Philadelphia is on the edge of its collective seats, waiting to erupt in joyous, raucous celebration. No city celebrates their sports heroes quite like Philly. All that has to happen is the Eagles upsetting the dynastic New England Patriots, who are trying for their sixth Super Bowl victory in the Tom Brady--Bill Belichick era. We have already seen how The City of Brotherly Love can burst apart in frenzied triumph when the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and again in 1975. That's over 40 years ago. The last time the Eagles won a championship was back in 1960. That's 58 years ago when JFK was elected President.

Since the Flyers, Philadelphia has won championships with the Phillies and 76ers, but they are still waiting for the Eagles.

There is one thing, however, Philadelphia can boast that no other major sports city can. They can boast celebrating a horse as a bona fide hero. That doesn't mean some low-key casual celebration. It means celebrating by stampeding a racetrack with some 10,000 jubilant fans, ages 4 to 90, waiting in line since 5 a.m. just to watch a horse gallop once around the track. It means mobbing a merchandising table to purchase a piece of memorabilia. It means lining the streets of suburban Bensalem, equipped with still and video cameras, to shoot a horse van going by. It means closing down a major thoroughfare and the toll booths of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to make way for a horse. It means having a horse trainer throw out the first pitch at a Phillies game. It means signs and decorations outside of homes in downtown Philadelphia. It means a formal proposal to rename the main street in Bensalem after a horse. It means TV news helicopters whirring over Philadelphia Park Racetrack and police escorts in three different states and billboard signs on the turnpike. It means well over 500,000 letters, drawings, and poems sent to the owner and trainer of a horse. It means a record crowd of 120,000 people, many of them from Philadelphia, jamming their way into spacious Belmont Park to see a horse try to make history. It means being the first horse in 21 years to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. It means an out-of-town media onslaught on a small track outside Philadelphia to see a horse in the morning, get a few quotes from his trainer, and indulge in cake, pastries fruit, and other culinary fare, set up outside the barn, courtesy of Philly Park. It means helping an entire state get slot machines.

Yes, it means Smarty Jones, the horse who took a city by storm, captured its heart, and showed just how fervent people can get over a horse. At least the people of Philadelphia, who saw their beloved Eagles soar to the Super Bowl six months after Smarty Jones' untimely retirement, only to fall victim to the New England Patriots, who now stand in their way once again.

Will Eagles fans finally get their storybook ending? We all know what this city is capable of when it embraces a champion and a true hero.

Smarty Jones' story has been told numerous times, with its soap opera chapters captured in columns that can be found in this website's archives.

In 2004, Smarty Jones passed through a portal that will remain frozen in time. He was the ruler of all Turfdom, a national hero to children and adults of all ages. He turned virtual unknowns, like John Servis, Stewart Elliott, Bill Foster, Pete Van Trump, and Dr. Patricia Hogan into household names. He had the city of Philadelphia and the small suburb of Bensalem fighting over him like two jealous suitors. He turned cheese steaks and soft pretzels into soul food. He turned apathy into exultation with his victories and exultation into sorrow with his lone defeat. And finally, he turned sorrow into outrage with his departure. Whatever greatness he might have achieved will remain behind, like an unfinished manuscript filled with beautiful prose, never to be read.

Philadelphia, starving for a champion after more than two decades of frustration with the Phillies and 76ers and over four decades with Eagles, was alive and vibrant in 2004. It had found the ultimate sports hero, who cared nothing about salary contracts and competed for the pure joy of it. And that is why when the day came for his premature retirement, the fans showed up in droves to get one final glimpse of the equine king who ruled there for three glorious months, and who was now abdicating his throne at the height of his reign.

Despite the high energy that rippled through the track, Philly Park was no place for sunshine on Aug. 14, 2004. The drops of rain that began to fall just as Smarty Jones marched down the stretch for his farewell appearance were matched only by the tears shed by many of his loyal fans. They came to say goodbye, and watching Smarty prancing along on his toes as if longing for competition made his retirement all the more difficult to grasp.

Cries of “Smarty! Smarty!” and “We love you, Smarty,” poured out from the large crowd gathered along the rail from one end of the stretch to the other. It was one final burst of emotion, whether in the form of cheers or tears, from an adoring public who opened their hearts to this dynamo of a horse. Watching Smarty walk along the rail the length of the stretch, back to his barn for the last time, one couldn’t help but think what might have been and of all the glorious victories of which they were being deprived. After all, champions are supposed to ride off into the sunset, not walk.

This had been the ultimate rags to riches story. 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 (book and movie) and Funny Cide comets, Smarty Jones carved his own niche in racing folklore. And like The Biscuit and Funny Cide he transcended the sport of Thoroughbred racing, reaching deep into mainstream America, but mostly one city that embraced him like nothing seen before.

The legend was spawned on Roy and Pat Chapman's 100-acre Someday Farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, 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.

When the Chapmans’ trainer, Bob Camac was murdered by his stepson, and with Roy Chapman suffering from emphysema, he and Pat decided to sell almost all of their horses, leaving themselves with only two Pennsylvania-bred weanlings. Before they had a chance to sell them as well, they received a call from their farm manager, telling them he thought this one colt could be something special. The decision was made to keep the horse and turn him over to trainer John Servis at Philadelphia Park. Chapter one complete.

Chapter two begins one morning at the starting gate, with Smarty Jones and other 2-year-olds being schooled for the first time. Maureen Donnelly was on one of the Servis 2-year-olds and 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 New Jersey Equine Clinic in rural New Jersey where Smarty Jones is sent to try to save his eye. Dr. Patricia Hogan recalled, “His whole face was horrible, and his left eye was so swollen it wasn't even visible. 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.”

Hogan injected all of the swollen tissue with medication using a 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.

Smarty Jones went on to make history, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and earning a $5 million bonus for his sweep of the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby. Quasimodo had become one of the most beloved and popular horses of all time.

When he returned to Philly Park following his Kentucky Derby triumph, he was reunited with Donnelly, who had not seen him since he left on his Quixotic quest. “He's still so great to be around,” she said. “After he won the Derby I got goose bumps, then I started crying hysterically. He's been through so much and came out of it a champ. When something like this happens it's the pinnacle of your life.”

Two of the everlasting images were the two Saturdays Philly Park opened its gates for people to come watch Smarty gallop and be honored by the town of Bensalem and the city of Philadelphia. It was something that had never been done before. When the gates finally opened at 8 a.m. it was a mad rush to get a spot close to the rail.

Young children sat atop their father’s shoulders to get a better look at this equine Rocky, some wearing Smarty Jones hats and T-shirts and others wearing Philadelphia Phillies and Flyers hats. By 8:15, the rail was lined nine and 10 deep, and the area outside the winner's circle was a mass of humanity that stretched almost to the grandstand. At the second showing, between the Preakness and Belmont, so many people showed up, they had to open the grandstand, which filled up so quickly it looked as if it was Pennsylvania Derby day.

Sitting in his wheel chair was octogenarian Frank Gilmore, who lived in Rhode Island and was visiting his in-laws in Yardley, Pennsylvania. This was his first visit to Philadelphia Park.

”It’s amazing the size of the crowd that has come here just to watch a horse run up and down the stretch,” he said. “But he’s a celebrity, and my wife and my son-in-law had to be here to see him. It’s fabulous; what a great story.”

It was announced by the town of Bensalem that if Smarty won the Belmont Stakes, its main thoroughfare, Street Road, on which Philly Park is located, would be renamed Smarty Jones Boulevard.

Another indelible image was the morning Smarty left for Belmont Park. 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 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.

To demonstrate the impact Smarty Jones had on the state of Pennsylvania, Governor Ed Rendell recalled, "It was such a great story, for me personally, and as a sports fan. 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 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 and S...gimme and 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 started 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.”

Smarty Jones’ quest for Triple Crown immortality came up a length short at Belmont Park when he was targeted by the other jockeys, forcing him into some brutal fractions, including a suicidal :22 4/5 third quarter that eventually took its toll in the final strides. Although beaten, the legend of Smarty Jones and his love affair with the city of Philadelphia had already been written, to be told for generations to come.

As the Super Bowl nears, the Eagles are still feeding off the energy generated by their underdog status through the playoffs, despite having the best record in football and playing all their playoff games at home. Before the first playoff game, Eagles’ defensive end Chris Long said to offensive tackle Lane Johnson, “Since we’re underdogs all the time why don't we just go buy some underdog masks. Johnson went on Amazon and found a German Shepherd mask he liked and bought it. After they defeated the Falcons, Johnson put it on and marched across the field with it and it’s become a part of the team’s rallying cry ever since.

With 11 days to the big game, the Eagles are the biggest Super Bowl underdogs since 2009. It couldn’t be more appropriate. After all, they share the same city with one of the biggest underdogs and Cinderella stories of all time.

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