Every once in a while, a horse with a catchy name with an abundance of charisma and speed, will grab the attention of the racing public and in so doing become the media darling of the moment. Smarty Jones is one such Thoroughbred. The chestnut son of Elusive Quality – I’ll Get Along by Smile was so popular with fans during his racing career that the main stream media would broadcast footage from hovering helicopters equipped with cameras to report his whereabouts.
Smarty Jones was bred in Pennsylvania by Roy and Pat Chapman at their one-hundred acre Someday Farm near Philadelphia. Bob Chapman was in ill health then, suffering from emphysema, so the couple decided to sell most of their racing and breeding stock as well as their farm property. They retained two horses, one of which was the chestnut colt out of I’ll Get Along, and moved the Someday operation to a modest eleven acre farm in New Hope Pennsylvania. Smarty Jones was named in honour of Pat Chapman’s mother whose nick name was “Smarty”.
Two events took place before Smarty Jones started his first race that would significantly affect his racing career. The first of which was the senseless murder of trainer Robert Camac and his wife, at the hands of his stepson, who was sentenced to twenty-eight years for the crime. Camac was the trainer for the Chapmans before his life was taken away. Roy and Pat were devastated. This tragedy along with Roy’s failing health became the catalyst to scale down their racing and breeding operation to two horses in training and four on their new scaled down farm.
With the remaining horses in their stable, Roy and Pat Chapman hired John Servis as their trainer. Servis was based at Philadelphia Park, now known as Parx, in Bensalem, Pennsylvania. However, another event would take place that nearly cost Smarty Jones his life, or at the very least the use of his left eye.
During a gate schooling session in July of 2003 at Philadelphia Park, Smarty was spooked while in the gate, reared up and slammed his head against an un-padded iron bar. The impact knocked the colt out. The immediate fear was that he had killed himself during this. Smarty was unconscious on the ground, bleeding from his nostrils. He regained consciousness and was whisked away to the equine hospital where Dr. Dan Hanf treated him for shock and stopped the haemorrhaging. Smarty Jones had suffered a fractured skull. The bones around his left eye were very severely damaged and there was an initial fear that the eye would have to be removed to save him. His head was swollen from the middle of his forehead to around the eye.
Smarty Jones recovered from this ordeal after three weeks at the hospital and another five weeks on the farm, with his eye intact and with clear vision. He had averted a very dangerous scare, to recover completely and could now begin his training to become a racehorse. And what a racehorse he became!!
The first race for Smarty was at his home track on November 11, 2003 in a six furlong maiden special weight event. He won by seven and a half lengths in 1:11 flat. Thirteen days later he took the seven furlong Pennsylvania Nursery, a restricted race for Penn bred two year olds, in a snappy 1:22 4/5. Servis would say “This is a nice horse that could go somewhere”. Roy Chapman always said that his dream is to have a horse to go to the Kentucky Derby. Servis began to map out a plan to get this obviously talented colt to that goal.
Now even though Servis winters and trains his horses in Florida, he decided to have Smarty Jones train at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. He shipped the colt to Aqueduct before his relocation to Arkansas and start his three year old campaign in the one mile and seventy yards Count Fleet Stakes on January 3, 2004. Smarty won this race, and then left for Oaklawn. Chapman questioned his trainer about preparing Smarty at Oaklawn to which Servis would say that the track has excellent facilities and a strong program to get a horse ready for the spring classics.
February 28 was the day of the debut race for Smarty Jones at Oaklawn in the one mile Southwest Stakes, followed a month later in the Rebel Stakes at a mile and one-sixteenth. He won both races and then captured the premier Oaklawn event for three year olds, the grade one nine furlong Arkansas Derby, setting him up for a very lucrative pay day.
Oaklawn management had initiated a bonus incentive to horsemen looking to prepare their Kentucky Derby contenders. If a three year old should sweep the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, and then go on to win the Kentucky Derby, a $5 million bonus would be awarded. Smarty Jones had completed the first two parts of the trifector and now was in line to claim the prize.
On to Churchill Downs for the big race on May 1, and a possible date with destiny. Could the horse with a sprinters pedigree carry his speed to win the one and a quarter mile Derby?
By the time Smarty Jones and his team arrived at Louisville, he had a large and burgeoning following of fans, especially from his home state of Pennsylvania. He was highly regarded by the press as a very likely winner to the upcoming race, even though his trainer and his jockey, Canadian born Stewart Elliot, were making their respective debuts in the race. The 2004 Kentucky Derby became a wet, soggy affair due to a violent thunderstorm that had passed through a little over an hour before post time. Along with intermittent rain throughout the day, the track was a sloppy quagmire. Smarty Jones was made the favourite by the betting public at 4/1 odds.
Lion Heart, the second choice in the betting, would rocket out of the gate and take the lead along the straight past the grandstand and keep the lead all the way along the back stretch uncontested into the far turn. Smarty Jones ran fourth around the clubhouse turn and gained ground down the back stretch to be second behind Lion Heart into the far turn. Elliot would ask Smarty for his run through the far turn and go after Lion Heart. These two hooked up at the top of the home stretch.
Smarty Jones had a full head of steam as he came to Lion Heart, who in turn dug in and found more in his tank to do battle. These two began to increase the distance from the pack. Smarty finally got by Lion Heart at the eighth pole and pulled away to win the Kentucky Derby by two and one-half lengths. Smarty Jones became the first undefeated winner of the Derby since Seattle Slew, twenty-seven years earlier. Lion Heart finished second with late closer Imperialism third and Limehouse fourth.
NBC broadcast the race and had a camera on the Smarty Jones connections. When they showed the jubilant reactions after the victory, Roy Chapman gave viewers and the people around him a big scare when he seemed to be out of breath and in distress. He would thankfully be ok and was wheeled down the winners circle to collect the Derby trophy and one could not avoid feeling a sense of emotion tugging on the heart strings while watching this frail man experience a thrill of a lifetime.
Smarty Jones had not only won the Kentucky Derby, but also the $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park as well. Stewart Elliot, the only jockey to ever steer him in a race, had given Smarty Jones a perfect ride. He was now the media’s go to horse. Smarty would handle the increased attention like a true pro, and never seemed to be unduly affected by the throngs of people cheering him on.
The Preakness Stakes might have been the best performance by Smarty Jones in his career. He won by a widening eleven lengths at the finish line, a record margin of victory, to add the Woodlawn Vase to the trophy collection. Smarty “Mania” was now sweeping the entire continent. School kids took to Smarty Jones sending letters and cards for their new equine hero. He graced the cover of magazines that had not had a horse on it for decades. T-shirts, hats, posters and pins were distributed and sold to fans. Smarty Jones had captured the hearts and imagination of an entire continent.
A police escort for Smarty was organised when he went from Pennsylvania to Belmont Park to get ready for his shot at the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. There were people cheering along the route holding placards of well wishes for Smarty Jones, and camera crews recording the trip. It was as if the Beatles were coming for the first time to New York, but this was for a horse!
Through all the hoopla and noise, Smarty Jones took everything in stride, never getting worked up or upset.
In the Belmont Stakes, Smarty Jones broke from the outside of the field of nine very well and was forwardly placed around the first turn. Purge and Rock Hard Ten set the pace around the turn with Smarty stalking in third. Down the back stretch Smarty took the lead into the far turn while Eddington and Rock Hard Ten kept the pressure on. Through the far turn Smarty began to pull away from these two but Birdstone had already begun his charge from back in the pack and was beginning to roll. Smarty had a four length lead entering the home stretch. Birdstone would not quit and finally caught Smarty Jones in the final seventy yards to win the Belmont Stakes.
There was a hush among the record crowd as Smarty Jones was beaten for the first time in his career. The crowd had come to see a coronation, but ended up being stunned by the result. The quiet was deafening. People were crying for their beaten hero. Smarty had given his all, but he could not get the “Test of Champions”. The Belmont Stakes race distance of one and one-half miles had claimed another victim.
Smarty Jones was retired from racing not long after the Belmont. He had bruised shins and there was serious doubt as to if he could continue on. Some people were opposed to the decision to retire him some were in favour. The ultimate decision belonged to Roy and Pat Chapman, and they were against anything that could remotely compromise the health of their beloved colt. They were not happy to retire him, but felt that in the best interests of Smarty Jones, retirement was necessary. He would win one more final award as the Eclipse Champion three year old for 2004.
The bright light of stardom Smarty Jones developed was now to be transferred to Three Chimneys farm in Kentucky, where he began his new career as a breeding stallion. Smarty was a throwback to grand days of when the sport was one of the most attended and talked about sports in the country. He was able to re-energize the public awareness of the grandeur and thrill of horse racing, His effect on the general public, especially children, had given the sport a much need boost to regain former glory.
Smarty Jones was indeed a dream horse. Bred and raced by a family of modest turf enthusiasts, conditioned and handled by a humble by very capable trainer, and ridden by a journeyman rider of impeccable renown, Smarty Jones was a horse of the common people and a Pennsylvanian treasure. He was everyman’s champion. A humbly bred horsed from a blue collar track in Pennsylvania to become the king of his generation at the biggest races and tracks in the land.
Today, Smarty Jones is back in his home state of Pennsylvania. He currently stands stud at the Northview Stallion Station division in Lancaster County. He still gets tons of fan mail and a steady stream of visitors. His popularity while not as white hot as when he was racing, is still very strong. His Facebook page currently has 7,913 likes, indicating how fans still remember him. The legend of Smarty Jones lives on.
Editor’s note: Smarty Jones has been returned to Kentucky to stand at Calumet Farm on November 28, 2015.
(Photo courtesy of The Tony Leonard Collection)