As the dark clouds moved in over Parx racetrack on Sept. 2 and with the predicted thunderstorms imminent, it threatened to disrupt the scheduled festivities to pay tribute to Philadelphia’s favorite hero of 2004, Smarty Jones. But fortunately the rains came and went before Smarty’s appearance.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 15 years since Smarty Jones, who at the age of 18 has been to Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Uruguay several times, back to Kentucky, and back home to Pennsylvania, captured the hearts of the nation, especially the city of Philadelphia, who embraced their equine star as a true hero, idolized by fans from ages 5 to 95.
With owner Pat Chapman and two handlers leading him down the stretch from the barn area and into the walking ring, Smarty walked several times around, reacting to the cheers of the huge crowd in attendance by pricking his ears, arching his neck, and bouncing along on his toes as if he were running in the next race, aptly named the Smarty Jones Stakes, Parx’s prep for the rich Pennsylvania Derby. Yes, at age 18, Smarty had his game face on. And from a physical standpoint he actually looked race ready, showing no signs of aging. His eyes were as bright as ever and his forelocks were draped above his eye as they were back in 2004 to make him identifiable even from a distance.
Smarty was then led into to winner’s circle where he posed for photos before heading back to the barn and then back home to Equistar Farm near Annville, Pa.
In the winner’s circle trophies were presented to trainer John Servis and Pat Chapman. Also present were Servis’ wife Sherri and veterinarian Patty Hogan who saved Smarty’s eye and possibly more after an accident at the starting gate as a 2-year-old. Also there in an ethereal way was Smarty’s constant companion and protector during that magical journey, the late Bill Foster. A life size cardboard cutout of Foster was brought out and was placed alongside the others for the presentation. Earlier in the day, Foster’s ashes were spread over the racetrack.
As Smarty walked off it brought back memories of the last time he was in this same winner’s circle. It was the day he bid farewell to the racetrack after suffering bruised ankles that forced his early retirement.
That day, the fans flocked to Philadelphia Park 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. Smarty pranced along on his toes then just as he would do 15 years later.
Then and now, cries of "Smarty! Smarty!" and "We love you, Smarty," poured out from the large crowd. On both occasions the fans opened their hearts to this dynamo of a horse.
He turned common folks, like Servis, jockey Stewart Elliott, Foster, exercise rider Pete Van Trump, and Dr. 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 disappointment with his departure. Whatever greatness he might have achieved in the annals of the sport would remain behind, like an unfinished masterpiece.
Smarty did leave behind the memory of a nine-race winning streak that reached a glorious crescendo in the Preakness Stakes, in what was the most dominating victory in the race’s history. He even shined in defeat, running his three main Belmont Stakes threats into the ground on the backstretch with a pair of scorching quarters, including an outrageous :22 4/5 third quarter, never before recorded in the mile and a half classic. While the others were left floundering up the track, Smarty battled on with sheer courage only to fall one length short of immortality. And to further prove his potential greatness, he left behind a legacy of vanquished foes who would eventually bask in the spotlight Smarty vacated, attaining riches and glory most felt were meant for him.
In 2004, the final glimpse of Smarty Jones heading back to his barn for the last time brought with it feelings of deep gratitude and admiration, but also feelings of sadness and emptiness. After all, heroes are supposed to ride off into the sunset, not walk. This time, however, everyone was united in their love and admiration for a horse who helped make Philly Park the epicenter of Thoroughbred Racing, bringing slot machines and eventually a magnificent casino to Pennsylvania.
To demonstrate the impact Smarty Jones had on the state, then 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.”
And how exactly did racing fans celebrate Smarty’s reign? They celebrated by stampeding a racetrack, as some 10,000 people showed up on two occasions just to see him gallop once around the track, some waiting in line beginning at 5 a.m. They mobbed the merchandising table to purchase a piece of memorabilia. They lined the streets of Bensalem, equipped with still and video cameras, to shoot a horse van going by as it headed to Belmont Park. They closed a major thoroughfare and the toll booths of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to make way for a horse. Servis was invited to throw out the first pitch at a Phillies game.
Smarty signs and decorations were displayed outside of homes in downtown Philadelphia. A formal proposal was made to rename the main street in Bensalem Smarty Jones Boulevard. TV news helicopters whirred over Philadelphia Park and police escorts in three different states accompanied Smarty to Belmont Park, and a billboard sign on the turnpike read, “Watch out, New York, Smarty is Coming.” During the Triple Crown Smarty received well over 500,000 letters, drawings, and poems. A record crowd of 120,000 people, many of them from Philadelphia, jammed their way into spacious Belmont Park to see Smarty try to make history. He became first horse in 21 years to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated. There was an out-of-town media onslaught on Philly Park, as they came from all over to see Smarty in the morning, get a few quotes from Servis, and indulge in cake, pastries fruit, and other culinary fare, set up outside the barn, courtesy of Philly Park. And as mentioned earlier, it was Smarty who helped an entire state get slot machines.
Yes, Smarty Jones, took Philadelphia by storm, captured its heart, and showed just how fervent people can get over a horse. And they still do after 15 years.
Much has been written here over the years about Smarty Jones and his remarkable rise to stardom. To learn the entire Cinderella story, here are links to several of my stories.
Elliott's Award Reopens the Smarty Story
Roses For Smarty
Smarty Jones - Cinderella Story Continues
A Crown Denied
Cheers, Tears, and Silence at the Belmont Stakes
Smarty Returns to the Track; Final Days With Butterscotch
Pat Chapman still in awe of her beloved Smarty Jones
The fans came out in full force to see Smarty Jones
Smarty still makes a grand appearance
Smarty is bright and alert and still has that charisma
Smarty in winner's circle
Winner's circle festivities with John and Sherri Servis, Pat Chapman, Patty Hogan, and a remembrance of Bill Foster