Like I was saying…
The Kentucky Derby. The Run for the Roses. Simply put the pinnacle of racing. If asked, owners and trainers alike, and maybe not 100%, but darn near close, would say that the one race in the world that they would most like to win is The Kentucky Derby. First won by a horse named Aristides in 1875, it carries a history and tradition unmatched anywhere in the sport. For those of you that are not overly familiar with horse racing, the Derby is restricted to horses that are three years old. That means any given horse gets one chance. One. And given that there are several thousand thoroughbreds foaled each year and the Derby field is limited to 20, the odds of getting to Louisville to compete are slim to begin with and then to actually win the race – well you do the math.
So when we last left Smarty Jones, he had just run brilliantly to win the Arkansas Derby, had qualified for the Derby and was off to Kentucky having won all six of his career starts. Unbeaten. But could a horse from a small stable at a small Pennsylvania racetrack stand up against the big guns of the sport? We would soon find out. One of the reasons that Smarty’s trainer John Servis had taken the unconventional route of prepping in Arkansas for the Derby was that he was trying to get him to Churchill Downs with the least amount of wear and tear. Why bang heads with all the big boys before you really had to? The idea of preparing a horse to win a big race is to get him to perform at the top of his ability at a specific moment. John kept Smarty as fresh as he possibly could and quietly liked his chances on that fateful first Saturday in May, the traditional date picked for the running of the Kentucky Derby.
While Smarty’s post position in the Arkansas Derby was very unfavorable, he drew a good spot in the gate at Churchill. No single starting gate can hold 20 horses; the standard gate holds 14, so what is done for the Kentucky Derby is that a second starting gate is butted up against the first one to add the final spots. With 20 horses charging out of there when the gate opens, it can cause a lot of crowding. But for the two horses that start from posts 14 and 15, there is a bit of extra room for them coming out of there because of the added space created between the gates. Smarty drew post 15.
There was some drama before the race even started. A huge storm blew through Louisville shortly before the race. Not just a downpour, more like a monsoon and the track surface quickly became very sloppy. While Smarty had never raced in conditions like that, again, trainer John Servis felt confident that Smarty would handle the footing. In fact, it might work to his advantage. On a sloppy track like that, horses that have to rally from the back of the pack can be at a disadvantage. All the wet and muck that gets kicked up by the horses in front of them hits them square in the face over and over and can prove intimidating to some. And while he had loads of talent, Smarty had the perfect running style. He liked to race near the front of the pack, but he wasn’t so head strong that he absolutely had to be in front of all his competitors right from the start. And again, to his advantage, there was a three year-old that year that was fast and head strong. His name was Lion Heart.
It’s race time. The Kentucky Derby. Nerves jangled. Hopes never higher. History waiting. And in any race, a disaster at the start can spell instant doom. The gate opened for the 130th Kentucky Derby and as he had done before, Smarty came bouncing right out of there. No disaster. All was good. For a few moments at least. In this humble writers opinion, the most important moment for Smarty Jones would come in the first quarter mile. As the field made its way thought the front straight for the first time Smarty was again doing what he had always done. Using his early speed to make his way toward the front of the pack. But he wasn’t alone. Two horses on his inside and two horses on his outside would start to come together, squeezing Smarty in between the two of them. A Smarty sandwich. A horse lacking in courage may well decide he doesn’t like the tight spot and back himself out of there. Not Smarty. Remember the courage he showed when he injured himself in the starting gate before his first start? He was a fighter. He battled his way out of the cramped quarters and by the time the field hit the first turn, Smarty was a close up fourth, saving ground on the inside of the track and chasing the front running Lion Heart.
By the midway point of the backstretch run, the horses on the outside of Smarty that had been second and third in the early going were having trouble keeping up and so Smarty now had moved up to second position with Lion Heart clearly in his sights. Long way to the finish yet, so jockey Stewart Elliott was patient. Let Lion Heart tire himself out and attack when the time was right. Also, with the horses having fallen back on his outside, it gave Elliott and Smarty the opportunity to ease their way off the inside position and go after Lion Heart on the outside, the perfect place from which to pounce. Entering the far turn, Lion Heart had opened a two and a half length lead and it was now go time for Smarty. Elliott asked Smarty to start closing the gap and Smarty responded. A slow and steady gain around the far turn found Smarty just one length behind Lion Heart as the two straightened for the wire. In the stretch, Smarty continued to gain. Lion Heart desperately tried to fend him off, but to no avail. Smarty was the better and stronger horse and as they came inside the final eighth of a mile, Smarty had taken the lead. The next nearest horse, other than Lion Heart who was fading, was five lengths back. Too much ground to make up and too little time to do it. Smarty was home free. He powered away from Lion Heart through those glorious final yards and glided under the famous Churchill finish line two and a half lengths in front. The crowd exploded. A star was born. A Kentucky Derby champion. An undefeated Kentucky Derby champion. The first horse to accomplish that since the great Seattle Slew all the way back in 1977.
Ah, but the story doesn’t end there. More thrills to come. Join me next newsletter as it’s off to Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes. Could the dream continue? Could Smarty capture the second jewel of the Triple Crown? We’ll have that story for you a month from now.