IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Derby winner blue-collar, not blueblood

WP: Smarty Jones wins Run for Roses for a little guy
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Kentucky Derby used to be the bluebloods' race, but no more, not for the last two years. For now, it's the blue-collar special.

Funny Cide won the run for the roses a year ago for a bunch of work-a-day guys in upstate New York. And now, as the "Down the stretch they come!" cry went up, here came Smarty Jones. Yes, it was the Smarty Jones, the pride of Philadelphia Park, a working man's race track if ever there was one. It was Smarty Jones coming down the stretch at Churchill Downs fresh from victories not at the big tracks in California or Florida but at humble Oaklawn in Arkansas. It was Smarty Jones, trained by a rookie in the big time who grew up in West Virginia named John Servis and ridden by a 39-year-old Derby first-timer, Stewart Elliott.

Elliott had won more races than most anyone could count, but few that could be remembered because he won them in the outback of thoroughbred racing.

Now, when Smarty Jones pulled alongside the front-running Lion Heart near the top of the stretch late Saturday afternoon at Churchill Downs, just about everyone knew this was going to be a second straight Derby victory for the so-called little guys. Elliott was urging him on, Servis was rooting him on. And the thing of it was, there was almost no doubt as they straightened away in the stretch.

The Cliff's Edge ran down Lion Heart three weeks ago in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, and so there was no way this dream wouldn't come true for Philly Park fans and other Pennsylvanians just as Funny Cide made dreams come true last year for New Yorkers. There was no way that Smarty Jones was going to lose to Lion Heart, and no other horse had a chance.

Smarty Jones went off as a 4-1 favorite in a wide-open race of 18 colts. He was the people's choice. But there were plenty of doubters among a rain-drenched crowd of 140,054 even if he had won all six of his races. There were plenty of doubts about his jockey, so widely unknown was he. Smarty hadn't won at Gulfstream. He hadn't won at Santa Anita. He hadn't won the Wood Memorial.

He truly had taken an unusual route to reach the winner's circle in this, the greatest American horse race.

"To me the Arkansas Derby was a really pressure race," Servis said. "It was do or die for us. When we got here, the pressure was off. My horse had been running so well. I dreamed about being here my whole life; I hoped one day I'd be here. Then, when he passed the eighth pole and Smarty was coming on, I remembered what Bob Baffert told me the other day. He said, 'If you get to the eighth pole and you have it, you're going to be overcome by a feeling I can't explain to you. Every race you'll ever run in, it'll never be the same.' I thought he had a little tear in his eye. And he was right. It was overwhelming."

"It's just unbelievable to cross the wire in front," said Elliott, who had done it thousands of times before but never on the first Saturday of May in Kentucky. "I can't explain it. There's no words for it. 'My Old Kentucky Home.' . . . That was pretty emotional. Just realizing where you are. It's overwhelming. I can't tell you how good it feels."

Happiest of all, perhaps, were Roy and Pat Chapman, who bred the horse at their Chester County, Pa., farm and own him. They named him for Pat's mother, Mildred Jones, because the horse was born Feb. 28, her birthday, and she had been nicknamed "Smarty" by her grandparents. "We couldn't name him Mildred," Servis said.

But just when the Chapmans were expecting to have a little fun with Smarty the horse, they were beset by tragedy. Their trainer, Bob Carmac, and his wife were found shot to death; Carmac's stepson was charged with double murder (and was sentenced earlier this year for the crime). The Chapmans were so upset they almost abandoned the racing industry entirely. They sold off all but two of their horses, one of them being Smarty Jones.

No sooner had Servis taken charge of Smarty when there was more trouble. Schooling at the starting gate, the horse reared up and struck his head on an iron bar. He was knocked out -- cold. As Servis recalled, Smarty lay in a heap. The trainer thought the horse was dead. After he regained consciousness, it took days for the swelling to subside and longer before everyone was sure he would perfectly all right. At that point, none among them could have imaged that someday Smarty Jones would make Servis and Elliott the first first-time trainer and jockey combination to win the Derby since Bud Delp and Ron Franklin with Spectacular Bid in 1979, that Smarty would become the first undefeated horse to win the Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977.

Imagine those two names in the same sentence: Seattle Slew and Smarty Jones.

"We have seven grandchildren who were watching the race today," Roy Chapman said. "I think maybe at Philadelphia Park, wherever that might be."

Chapman, who will celebrate his 78th birthday next week, suffers from emphysema and must carry oxygen with him. He usually can found in his wheelchair, but Smarty Jones brought him to his feet Saturday.

"I think Smarty is so good for Mr. Chapman," Servis said. "I think he keeps him going."

The victory meant an additional $5 million for Smarty's connections, for two victories in Arkansas combined with the Kentucky Derby. "You must have plenty of extra incentive to win," an admirer said to Servis the other morning at Smarty's barn.

Servis smiled and said, "All we want is to see that blanket of roses draped across Smarty's back." And so it was.