THE INSIDE TRACK WITH KEITH JONES
Like I was saying…
As we turn the calendar to 2014, it’s hard to believe that we’re coming to the 10th anniversary of Smarty Jones. If you weren’t fortunate enough to be here during that memorable spring, you missed the greatest couple of months in the track’s history. Horses like Smarty Jones just don’t happen. You can’t come from a small racetrack in Pennsylvania and win the Kentucky Derby. It just doesn’t happen. You need to be among the bluebloods of the sport in New York or Kentucky, Florida or even California. The history books tell us that, but not only did Smarty defy all logic, he raced himself into the hearts of racing fans worldwide – yes, worldwide – to become one of the most popular horses of all time.
Wow, where to start. How about the beginning and the fact that he almost never had a racing career at all due to an accident when he was a two year-old learning to get comfortable in the starting gate. All two year-olds go through the process. The young horses tend to be very jittery and that big, metal giant is often very imposing to them and can cause a good deal of angst. Smarty seemed to be doing well. He’d been in the gate before without incident when one morning, something inside went haywire. Without warning, he suddenly reared up with tremendous force and smacked his head against a metal bar across the top of the gate, breaking the bone around his eye. His face looked like a battered, beaten prize fighter, angry and swollen. But as the attending veterinarian quickly discovered, it failed to dampen his spirit even a little bit. As she pointed out, most horses, after a trauma like that, would retreat in their stalls and sulk. Not Smarty. He behaved as if nothing had happened. While the injuries were significant, they would heal and before too long, he was back training again and preparing for his first race. That day would come on a Sunday here at then, Philadelphia Park, on November 9, 2003.
While he came into the race with some fanfare, he certainly was not overhyped. The scuttlebutt was that trainer John Servis had himself a nice young horse and we were all looking forward to seeing this new horse with the catchy name. He indeed won that afternoon, but didn’t display anything that revealed the greatness that the racing world would soon get to see. No, not that Sunday. But 13 days later, that all changed – and changed in a big way. The day was November 22, 2003, and the race was the seven furlong Pennsylvania Nursery. Smarty had tremendous early speed – speed that he would come to learn to harness – but speed this day that seemed almost uncontrollable. He raced out of the long seven furlong shoot and onto the main track and quickly established a big lead. He carried that lead to the far turn where the timing display revealed that he had run the first half mile of the race in 44 and one-fifth of a second. That’s remarkably fast for any horse, let alone a young two year-old that was racing for only the second time. It’s a half mile that I’ll never forget. About to begin my 28th year of race calling, I’ve watched a lot of horses through my binoculars. The quality that a really good horse has, and I mean a REALLY good horse, is that he can run fast without seeming to exert himself. Their stride is so smooth and effortless that they just appear to glide over the track. When I saw :44.1 I was flabbergasted. He hadn’t appeared to be running that hard and yet, the timer said he was absolutely flying. Astounding. Well, now, only one thing could happen. He’d gone so fast that he was going to tire himself out, start laboring in the stretch and face certain defeat. Wrong. To everyone’s amazement, he kept going, continued to pull away and went on to win by over 15 lengths. After a day’s racing, the horses performances are all evaluated by something called their “Beyer Speed Figure” – a numerical estimation of just how fast they’ve run. Smarty’s “Beyer Number” that day revealed that he had run faster than any two year-old in 2003. And a star was born.
If Smarty was to become a Triple Crown contender, his trainer, and of course his wonderful, engaging owners Roy and Patricia Chapman had to find out he could carry that brilliant speed of his over a greater distance. Heck, the Kentucky Derby is a full mile and a quarter, a far cry from the Nursery distance of an eighth of a mile LESS than a mile. His first test came in New York at a mile and seventy yards in the Count Fleet Stakes January 4, 2004. He passed that test, winning his third straight race. Now it was decision time for his connections. Ten years ago, the conventional roads taken to the Derby were through prep races in New York, Florida, Kentucky or California. They opted, however, for something very unconventional. They took Smarty to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and decided to use their series of three prep races to get him ready for the ultimate test that fateful first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
It’s difficult for a race horse to be at his absolute best for every single race. In fact, that’s the whole purpose of the prep races. Work your way up and have the horse ready for his top effort on the day it means the most. In his first start at Oaklawn, the Southwest Stakes February 28th, Smarty was not at his best. He wasn’t supposed to be. He won anyway. Now four for four. Next up, the Rebel Stakes March 20th. He won again. That’s five in a row – if you’re counting. And finally, one last test before Kentucky, the Arkansas Derby on April 10th. A race that at that time meant everything. He needed to run well. Very well. Anything worse than a second place finish, against his toughest competition yet, from the worst post position he could possibly draw, meant that he wouldn’t qualify for the world’s most important race three weeks later.
Okay, that’s about enough for now. There’s more to the story. Much more. So grab your newsletter next month. I’ll pick up the story that April day in Arkansas, where the Smarty saga could have all fallen apart.
See you next time!