Like I was saying…
Time to continue the saga of the beloved Smarty Jones. If you remember from last month, Smarty had taken his undefeated Triple Crown campaign to the unusual location of Oaklawn Park in Arkansas and was now within one race of reaching Louisville and a start in the world’s most important race, the Kentucky Derby. But despite his perfect record, a spot in the starting gate on that first Saturday in May was far from guaranteed. Three year-olds had to earn their way to the Derby via earnings in graded stakes races and because of his non-traditional campaign, coming up to the Arkansas Derby, his final race before Kentucky, Smarty lacked the necessary earnings to qualify. In fact, he had no graded earnings at all. He had yet to run in a graded race. At that time, the Arkansas Derby was a Grade 2 race with a purse of $1 million. Smarty would need to finish no worse than second to earn enough money to get his chance at history three weeks later. Trainer John Servis had put all his eggs in one basket. Saturday, April 10, 2004 was “do or die” for Smarty.
First up, the draw for post positions. A poor post position can absolutely compromise a horse’s chance at success and for Smarty, the draw could not have been worse. He drew the extreme outside post, #11, in the toughest field he had faced to date. Knowing that Smarty had good early speed, jockey Stewart Elliott’s job would be to get Smarty away from the gate cleanly and try his very best not to get stuck too far outside into the first turn and be forced to cover extra ground with a wide trip. The race could not have unfolded better. Smarty was alert leaving the gate, was three wide briefly heading into the clubhouse turn, but as the middle horse of the lead threesome eased back, Smarty moved over into the two path and was able to sit just to the outside of the front running colt Purge as they rounded the first turn. He would shadow Purge for the entire run down the backstretch. Back to the race in a moment.
His “tactical” speed, along of course with his tremendous ability, was probably Smarty’s greatest asset. He could get himself up toward the leading group of horses; yet, he wasn’t so head strong that he needed to be in front of everybody right away. Horses that are slower starters find themselves sometimes compromised by traffic in front of them or a pace that is simply too slow for them to be able to catch up at the end. Because of his running style, Smarty never faced those problems.
So where were we? Oh yeah, down the backstretch at Oaklawn sitting just to the outside and just behind Purge. Moving to the far turn, Stewart asked Smarty to move alongside and engage his rival. Time to see what Purge was made of. By the midway point of the turn, it was obvious that Smarty was the stronger horse and with about a quarter mile to go, he had taken the lead. A burst turning for home suddenly put Smarty three lengths in front. Now could he hold off any of the come-from-behinders that were unwinding with their rallies from the back of the pack? You bet. No problem. Smarty cruised home a clear two lengths in front, had himself the necessary earnings to get to Louisville and would head to the Kentucky Derby undefeated.
Another side light to the story was “The Bonus.” As I’ve mentioned, the Oaklawn races were not the traditional way a quality three year-old prepared for the Kentucky Derby, but track owner Charles Cella wanted to change that. In an effort to entice some top prospects to come to his track and race, he offered a $5 million bonus to any horse that could win his Rebel Stakes, his Arkansas Derby and then go on and win the Kentucky Derby. A tall order in anyone’s book and I’m pretty sure Mr. Cella felt confident that he would not be parting with the big cash. So if Smarty could pull off the improbable and win the Kentucky Derby, not only would he earn the accolades that come to a Derby winner, the $600,000 winner’s share of the purse, the increased value he would command later as a stallion, but that cool 5 mil Mr. Cella had waiting.
As the Derby approached, Smarty’s popularity grew. The Chapman’s, his owners, and his trainer, John Servis, were cordial and engaging with the media and the public and clearly relished the attention. Everyone loves to root for the longshot and while Smarty was anything but in terms of his record and his ability, the odds of regular folks like the Chapman’s and a trainer from a small track outside Philadelphia that had never seen a Derby prospect in its history ending up with a Derby champion were astronomical. And the name. Oh yes, the name. Smarty Jones. Something really catchy about that name. People loved him. But could he do it? Could he become the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since the legendary Seattle Slew did it all the way back in 1977.
I hope you grab your newsletter again next month when we’ll look back at Smarty’s Run for the Roses.
See you next time!