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Before the 2004 Preakness Stakes-G1 at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, NBC reporter Bob Neumeier asked trainer John Servis a gambler’s question about Kentucky Derby-G1 winner Smarty Jones.

“I believe since the early ’80s that every winner of this race has had at least one workout between the Derby and the Preakness,” Neumeier said. “You chose not to. Should people who backed your horse be a little concerned about that?”

Servis defended his position with two sentences. “Well, I just did what I thought was best for my horse. And if I did the wrong thing, I’m sure I won’t be the first guy.”

Nearly 20 years later, Servis expounded on the training plan – which, with the passage of time, doesn’t seem as strange as Neumeier made it out to be.

“My horse just ran a mile-and-a-quarter and he’s running back in two weeks,” Servis said in late March. “Physically, he was fine, fit, ready to go. Mentally, I wanted him to feel like he could go bear hunting with a switch.”

The bears never had a chance. 

Facing nine rivals in the $1 million Preakness, Smarty Jones drafted off Derby runner-up Lion Heart until the top of the stretch, passed the leader on the inside and ran away. The margin was 11 1⁄2 lengths – the largest in Preakness history. It could have been 20. 

It’s been two decades, but the race still awes the people involved. Not that the Smarty Jones Experience was ever solely about racetrack performance. Foaled at Roy and Pat Chapman’s Someday Farm in Pennsylvania’s southern Chester County, the chestnut son of Elusive Quality and the Smile mare I’ll Get Along changed lives.

“We were on a ride of a lifetime, and we took people on a ride of a lifetime too,” said Servis, who passed 2,000 lifetime training wins last year. “With one horse. It’s kind of crazy when you think back on it all.”

Roy Chapman died in 2006 after battling emphysema for years, but his wife carries on the Someday racing/breeding operation with a small stable and two broodmares. She answers questions about Smarty Jones regularly and recently re-watched a 2005 biography from the Outdoor Life network.

“I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, then I was laughing; I went from laughter to tears over and over again,” she said. “Every step of the way we felt like we were somebody else, that this certainly can’t be happening in our lives. It was the best medicine my husband had. They said it was lightning in a bottle, but it sure does keep you going for a while.”

Stewart Elliott rode his first races in 1981 at Keystone – later Philadelphia Park and even later Parx Racing – and entered 2004 with six lifetime graded stakes wins. He won eight in 2004 alone.

“All the publicity, it was overwhelming really,” said the 59-year-old, who rides mainly in Texas now and has won more than 5,665 races. “I’d never been in that position before. It made you realize the opportunity you had. It happens so fast when you’re in it like we were. You can’t explain it. It took a month to realize what had happened.”

Smarty Jones reached beyond direct connections, appealing to racing fans, the Philadelphia sports community and the nation. Many credit the horse with ushering in Pennsylvania’s slots legislation, which provided revenue to boost purses and breeding incentives.

“You couldn’t turn on the TV or the radio without hearing about Smarty Jones,” said Rodney Eckenrode, owner of Equistar Training and Breeding, where Smarty Jones continues a stallion career at age 23. “It was just a great story. If we can ever come up with another horse that can do what he did for the non-racing community, it would be amazing. He brought so many people to the sport that were not involved at the time. You can’t create that or pay for that.”

Or can you?

Smarty Jones gets his name from Pat Chapman’s family. Her mother used to tell a story about a nickname from her childhood – Smarty Jones – handed down by her grandfather.

He used to ask the young girl her name and she would reply, “Mildred Evelyn McNair.”

Papa Jones would correct her and say, “No, your name’s Smarty Jones.”

A dozen years after the human Smarty Jones died, I’ll Get Along delivered a foal on Mildred’s birthday, Feb. 28. When it came time to name the colt, Pat Chapman wanted to honor her mother. Mildred wasn’t going to work for a colt, so Smarty Jones it was. 

Ten months later, that serendipity ran headlong into tragedy. Bob Camac – who bought I’ll Get Along for the Chapmans, trained her to a dozen wins and suggested they breed her to Elusive Quality – and his wife Maryann were murdered by her son from a previous marriage. 

Already scaling back their Thoroughbred operation, which included a win in the 1989 Maryland Hunt Cup with Uncle Merlin, because of Roy’s health the Chapmans nearly sold everything in response to Camac’s death. Bridlewood Farm’s George Isaacs suggested they hang on to two yearlings. One was Smarty Jones, who soon impressed everyone at the Ocala, Fla., farm.

On the advice of their trainer Mark Reid, who had recently retired, the Chapmans sent the colt to Reid’s former assistant Servis at Parx Racing (then called Philadelphia Park) in 2003. 

Smarty Jones didn’t exactly tout himself.

“When he first came in and I saw him, I wasn’t impressed,” said Servis. “I remember thinking, ‘This is the horse they’re all talking about?’ But when you put the tack on him, he would transform. It would make you say it wasn’t the same horse. He just swelled up, and looked bigger and better than he did standing in the stall or around the barn.”

As he neared his debut in late July, Smarty Jones went for a routine trip to the starting gate. He reared up, hit his head and collapsed in a heap, blood pouring from his nose and forehead. Sent to Hogan Equine Clinic in New Jersey and facing a potential surgical procedure to remove his eye due to the massive swelling, Smarty Jones was diagnosed with fractures around an eye socket. 

He missed six weeks of training. Upon the horse’s return, Servis started over.

“I went slow, really slow, with the gate work,” he said. “The first few times, I just took him to the gate and didn’t even put him in. We just stood back there and watched horses break. We treated him like a first-timer.”

A potential summer debut turned into late autumn, and Smarty Jones blitzed nine unsuspecting rivals in a Parx maiden special weight Nov. 9. 

“I rode a lot for John and I would get on most of the horses and breeze them,” said Elliott. “Him, I never did. I went to the paddock and the only thing John told me was to watch him in the gate, that he wasn’t the best gate horse. That’s all I got. He broke like a rocket, he ran like a rocket, I came back to the winner’s circle and there were a hundred people, OK not a hundred, but a lot.”

Elliott asked them, “Man where you been hiding this one?”

Thirteen days later, Smarty Jones made light work of the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes – a 15-length score. Pat Chapman watched the 7-furlong race alongside Servis.

“Oh, no. Oh, no,” Servis said as Smarty Jones rolled on the front end.

“The horse kept moving away and leaving everybody behind,” Chapman said. “John thought he was going to tire out, but he never did.”

Servis wanted to answer another question, maybe two, before letting expectations take over. Could Smarty Jones relax early in a race? And could he navigate the demands of two turns? The Count Fleet Stakes, a mile and 70 yards on Aqueduct’s inner track, looked like the ideal place to find out.

Sent off as the 2-5 favorite in his 3-year-old debut Jan. 3, 2004, Smarty Jones broke from the outside in a field of seven and sat just off Risky Trick and Sinister G for about 6 furlongs before galloping away by 5 lengths.

“It was the perfect opportunity to get a hold of him and see if he would set off horses,” said Elliott. “He was so fast that when he broke, he’d be gone. I was not going to let him get going. I was going to grab him right away. He was outside and I could do that. He learned he didn’t need to go to the lead right away to win.”

The Derby Trail

Trainers don’t often have to contemplate where to spend the winter with 2-year-old winners from Parx. Typically, the answer is right there at home in Bensalem with the Wawas, Philly accents and Pennsylvania Turnpike traffic rolling past.

Not with this horse. Servis considered the options and chose Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, for reasons practical and personal.

“I loved the distances of those preps, how they just stepped up to the Kentucky Derby,” he said. “And my father [jockey turned steward Joe Servis] always talked very highly of Oaklawn. He was a huge fan.”

Servis called the Chapmans with the idea.

“You’re the boss,” Roy Chapman told his trainer. “But you do realize we live in Florida, right?” 

“Yes, I understand that,” Servis said.

And Smarty Jones was soon on a van to Hot Springs.

“To their credit and I can’t say this enough, everything I did they never questioned,” Servis said of the Chapmans. “That Oaklawn thing about Florida was the only thing and that wasn’t really a question. That was just Chappy. They let me do my thing.”

After watching Smarty Jones try to run off with a local exercise rider, Servis convinced Pete Van Trump to relocate from Parx for the winter. That calmed the horse and the trainer, who plotted a path to the Derby via the 1-mile Southwest Feb. 28, the 1 1⁄16-mile Rebel March 20 and the 1 1⁄8-mile Arkansas Derby-G2 April 10. The Southwest convinced Servis he’d made the right decision.

“He was 75 percent at best and he got hooked at the head of the lane and dug in and won [by three-quarters of a length],” Servis said. “He was tired and he showed me he had some heart.”

Servis told himself, “This horse is a real racehorse.” With a chance at a big payday. The trainer knew nothing about it until he got there, but Oaklawn offered a $5 million bonus for sweeping the Rebel, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby. Smarty Jones took his first step, and won for the fifth consecutive time, with a 31⁄4-length score over Purge in the Rebel. Smarty Jones handled his business again in the Arkansas Derby – building a 3-length lead in the stretch and scoring by 11⁄2.

That’s where it all came to focus for Elliott.

“You learn in this business to take it one step at a time; I do anyway,” he said. “It was the first million-dollar race for me. I remember thinking, ‘Let’s win this one before we go to the Derby’ and then, ‘Man, here we are.’ ”

On to Louisville, and Baltimore

Smarty Jones went to Kentucky undefeated in six starts. He was the Derby favorite, but represented connections who’d never bred, owned, trained or ridden a Derby starter. Worried about construction at Churchill Downs, Servis took his horse to Keeneland after Oaklawn and promptly gave himself something new to worry about.

“He did not like that racetrack,” he said. “Pete was coming back and saying he wasn’t training as well as he was in Arkansas. I started noticing a little filling in his ankles. They weren’t bothering him, but it just wasn’t him. We were about a week into it and we got rain for two days. We went to the training track instead and Pete came back and said he trained like a monster. We kept him on the training track for three days and he turned completely around.”

Smarty Jones shipped to Churchill, breezed once and – sent off as the 4-1 favorite on a sloppy track – ousted 17 rivals in the 11⁄4-mile classic. The most anxious moments came well before the finish. Early, Smarty Jones was in the middle of a five-horse phalanx behind leader Lion Heart and feeling pressure on both sides. 

“That’s a cavalry charge and he wasn’t a big horse, kind of a small horse, getting jostled around in there but that’s what made him win the race,” said Elliott. “He stayed in there for me. If he’d have backed out, that would have been the end of it.”

On the backstretch, Lion Heart led. Smarty Jones was second and taking slop in his face thanks to Pollard’s Vision to the outside. 

“That horse was keeping me kind of pinned right behind Lion Heart,” said Elliott. “It wasn’t a terrible spot, but I wanted to get out of there.”

Smarty Jones put his head in front of Pollard’s Vision, eased out from behind the leader and jolted Elliott’s confidence.

“About the five-eighths pole, he got on the bridle and got comfortable,” said the jockey. “Right then, I knew it.”

He didn’t know he was going to win but thought, “Here’s my horse, here’s the horse I know.”

Smarty Jones handled it from there, leaving the others on the turn, roaring into the stretch and tackling Lion Heart to win by 23⁄4 lengths.

“Crazy, crazy good,” said Servis, who watched from a box along with the Chapmans, his wife Sherry and their sons Blane and Tyler, about the feeling. “It was a dream come true, something I’d dreamt about since I was a little kid. I tell everybody, people I know who own horses and stuff, that the most memorable thing of all was walking over for the Derby with my kids. Seeing the expressions on their faces is something I’ll never forget.”

The Servises and friends from Pennsylvania, Blase and Debbie DeRosa, left the press conference and other post-race hoopla as Derby winners. Also, rookies.

“So, what do you guys want to do for dinner?” Sherry asked.

“It’s Derby Day, we don’t have a reservation,” John answered. “Every place in town is going to be mobbed. We’re not getting in anywhere. We shouldn’t even try.”

They had pizza delivered to the lobby of the Brown Hotel.

The Chapmans ate at the Brown too, among with family and a slew of new friends.

“They let us have a room for a dinner,” said Pat, “and I still remember the fans outside the door calling to us. Of course I wanted to talk to everybody. Eventually, we had to tell them we were exhausted.”

The fun was just starting. 

Driving home on I-64 near Lexington the next day, the Servises heard a car horn. John looked to make sure he didn’t shut off anybody, but the mirror was clear. To the side, two people hung out the windows and cheered. 

“Smarty Jones . . . Smarty Jones . . . Smarty Jones . . .” they called.

Servis asked his wife, “How the hell do they know who we are?”

The reactions only multiplied. At home, the Servises arrived to a yard decorated with signs, balloons and crepe paper. The next morning at the barn, Servis found barricades and – soon enough – a 40-person press contingent. 

Two short weeks later, Smarty Jones ran away with the Preakness to put the Triple Crown in play. 

A Trying Belmont

Undefeated, like 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, Smarty Jones drew the attention of pretty much every media outlet that ever covered a horse race in advance of the Belmont Stakes. And many that didn’t. 

“Philadelphia, small-time connections, underdog, that kind of thing,” said Elliott of the reasons for all the attention. “I don’t know. I know he was the people’s horse.”

The story contained plenty of hooks – the catchy name, Camac’s murder, the starting-gate accident, sheer ability and the grace of the people involved. 

“Even before Smarty, my wife and I would say that this business has been so good to us, how are we ever going to give back?” said Servis. “I told her whatever interviews we could do, we’re going to do. We’re going to let people be part of it.”

In the middle of an NHL playoff run by the Flyers, callers talked about Smarty Jones on Philadelphia sports radio. The horse made the local news. At the barn, letters from fans filled display boards. A crowd estimated at 8,500 showed up at Parx to watch him gallop. On Belmont Day, Amtrak’s Northeast Regional stopped at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and filled to capacity with people in Smarty Jones hats and shirts. 

Belmont Park attracted 120,139 fans for the 2004 Belmont Stakes. They wore their shirts, carried their signs, cheered for their hero – and went home disappointed. Smarty Jones came up a length short after fighting off all challengers except 36-1 shot Birdstone. 

Smarty Jones broke well from stall nine and found a spot outside Purge and Rock Hard Ten through the first half-mile in :48.65. The favorite pulled hard and drew alongside the first two on the backside. 

“You know as a jockey when you ride enough races how it sets up,” he said. “Is it setting up? It was not setting up. He was too rank.”

Elliot remembers thinking, “This horse cannot go as far as we have to go this fast.” 

Hoping a little freedom would help his horse relax, Elliott gave Smarty Jones some rein and he went to the front alone. The peace didn’t last. To the outside, Eddington matched the move. Along the rail, Rock Hard Ten re-engaged. Smarty Jones answered both calls, running the race’s second half-mile in :46.79, and carried a 31⁄2-length lead to the quarter pole. Behind him, Birdstone kept grinding. He drew even in the final 70 yards and swept past. Smarty Jones was 8 lengths clear of third-place Royal Assault.

In the moment, defeat hurt. With time, it’s not so bad.

“People always ask me about the Belmont but there was nothing I could have done differently,” said Elliott. “I had already tried everything I could. I knew it probably wasn’t going to work going into the first turn. I tried letting him out a little bit to see if he’d relax and come back to me. He just wanted to go faster.

“Of course you’re disappointed. It was very disappointing. But at the same time, especially now . . . Man, what a ride. You have to appreciate it. It was good, it could have been great.”

Servis might have known before Elliott.

“I breezed him seven-eighths and he breezed OK; he didn’t breeze great,” said the trainer of a pre-Belmont workout at Parx. “I was starting to see a little change in him. . . It was easier to see or know afterward. Mentally and physically, it was wearing on him. He wasn’t striding out like he was, wasn’t quite training like he was. His bloodwork was good, he was eating good, he was doing everything he should do. I think he was a little tired. They’re racehorses. It’s hard to keep them good for a long period of time and he was good for a long time.

“I think it just caught up to him. He ran great in the Belmont. There were a lot of people wanting him to win. He just didn’t.”

The End

Even 20 years later, it’s difficult to process that Smarty Jones never raced again after losing for the first time. His areer lasted just seven months – eight consecutive wins, the lone loss and then retirement.

That was not the plan. 

A stallion deal with Kentucky’s Three Chimneys Farm gave the Chapmans control of Smarty Jones’ racing career and they could have chosen any number of paths. The Pennsylvania Derby would have been some party. Servis gave Smarty Jones 45 days off. He tack-walked for a week before going to the track.

The first day, Smarty Jones jogged less than 10 steps before Servis let out an, “Aw, ----.” The comeback was going to have to wait.

“He was on eggshells,” Servis said. “Everything was cold and tight back at the barn, meaning there wasn’t something immediate but there was something.”

He called the Chapmans to tell them that Smarty Jones was, at minimum, going to need more time. Because he was dealing with a Derby winner whose stud value was $39 million, Servis suggested a nuclear scan to rule out anything major. Dr. Rodney Belgrave at Mid-Atlantic Equine Medical Center diagnosed bone bruising in all four ankles. Further consultation with Dr. Larry Bramlage at Kentucky’s Rood and Riddle led to a conference call and a decision nobody wanted to make.

“He didn’t need surgery, but he was going to need time and with the right amount of time he could come back and run well,” Servis said. Like everything in racing, however, there were no guarantees offered. The news broke in early August. Smarty Jones was retired. 

Servis still ponders the idea of Smarty Jones as an older horse – bigger, stronger, smarter, more relaxed. “He’d have been special,” the trainer said.

Elliott shares the opinion. “Off a break, it would have been fun to see him and man he would have been fun to ride,” said the jockey. “He would have run on anything too, the grass, whatever you wanted him to do.”

Chapman didn’t have the hands-on experiences of Servis and Elliott, but sometimes lets herself think about what might have been.

“I wanted to unretire him for a little bit,” she said. “We did thorough, thorough testing after three or four months and they found cartilage loss and the veterinarians recommended never having a rider on him to extend his life.”

And what a life.

Three Chimneys set the stud fee at $100,000 and planned for a book of 110 mares. He was voted champion 3-year-old male of 2004. He was also one of the top five searched words/terms on Google for that year.

Smarty Jones stood at Three Chimneys for five seasons before moving to Pennsylvania’s Ghost Ridge Farm in 2010. Next came four seasons at Northview Stallion Station’s Pennsylvania division, then a return to Kentucky at Calumet Farm for three. He also shuttled to Uruguay for four seasons. In 2018, he returned to the Keystone State at Equistar. Eckenrode still can’t quite believe it. 

“I never would have dreamt a horse like him would land here,” he said. “It’s just a blessing to be part of his story. He’s just a cool horse. We’ve gotten to be really good friends, me and that horse.”

Smarty Jones looks and acts half his age. He will cover 25 or so mares this year, all the while making sure the people in his life are on point. 

“We’re all living in Smarty’s world,” said Eckenrode. “He tells us when he’s ready to go out and when he’s ready to come in. He hollers, both times. When the weather is nice, he’s happy to be out. He doesn’t care if there’s rain, snow, or just a nice day with no bugs, he’ll be outside.”

Nobody rides him, but Smarty Jones still flashes some of that world-class ability.

“He’ll cut it up in the field pretty good,” Eckenrode said. “He runs and rips and tears. It’s fun to watch.”

As it goes with many top racehorses, Smarty Jones never duplicated himself on the racetrack. Not that he is a failure. His Northern Hemisphere statistics include 343 winners, 29 stakes winners and 10 graded/group winners. That squad includes Grade 1 winner Centralinteligence, $940,000-earner Isn’t He Clever, Grade 2 winners Old Time Hockey and Backtalk and regional stakes winners Someday Jones, John Jones and Concealed Identity. Australian-bred Better Life won three Group 1 races and was a four-time champion in Singapore. Smart D N A was a multiple champion in Panama. Last year, Aoife’s Magic won her first four starts, including two stakes, as a 2-year-old.

“He’s still popular with some people and we’ve had some really nice babies by him so far this year,” said Eckenrode. “Older horses like him get forgotten a little bit. Everybody’s interested in new horses.”

Maybe not everybody. Equistar doesn’t quite deal with the traffic Three Chimneys did in the early days, but Smarty Jones still resonates and attracts visitors. Chapman, Servis and Elliott field Smarty Jones questions with regularity and get into plenty of “I remember when” conversations.

Servis was talking about some home-improvement projects with a contractor in March and the guy dove right in.

“I remember Smarty Jones and all that,” he said.

“Can you believe it’s been 20 years?” Servis replied.

Hardly anyone can.

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