Just as the horses emerged from the paddock for Sunday's second race at this small and quiet track northeast of Philadelphia, three helicopters came whirling out of the south and settled high above the backstretch. Rarely, if ever, does anything here stir much commotion among the regular trackgoers, but this was a singular moment that turned heads upward. With pride in his voice, track announcer Keith Jones informed the smattering of about 2,000 who had gathered to watch and bet on an afternoon card notable for its uninspiring horseflesh: "The helicopters signal the return to Philadelphia Park of Smarty Jones."
Their champion had come home to the modest tin-roofed barn near the track's second turn, and if the heartfelt ovation from the stands along the homestretch sounded about 50 times smaller than the one he received Saturday in Baltimore when he all but flew across the finish line to win the Preakness at Pimlico by a race-record 11½ lengths, it was only because Smarty Jones's roots have been dug deep in the outback of thoroughbred racing. Champions come from places like Kentucky and California — not Philly Park.
But having won all eight of his races, including the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones is positioned to capture horse racing's first Triple Crown since 1978 with a victory in the Belmont June 5.
Five horses in the previous seven years, including the popular New York-bred Funny Cide last year, came up short with a chance to take the Triple with a victory at Belmont. But now some of Philadelphia's fevered sports fans, whose hearts often have been broken as their teams and athletes fell just short of expectations, seemingly would bet their last dollars on what is being seen here as a "Rocky" story come to life.
"It's stupendous — and not surprising," said race fan Charles Scherer, in the Philly Park paddock. "The horse is just so talented. His spirit has always been good, and his competitive spirit is obvious.
"You could tell [Saturday] at the starting gate that the horse was wound and ready to go. He came out of that gate faster than he's ever come out of a gate. The jockey had everything he could do to hold him back. It reminded me of a woman who's in labor, and they're trying to hold the birth process from starting because nobody's there yet, or the doctor's not ready yet. They say, 'Hold, hold, hold, hold.' It was like that, and when the jockey finally let go it was like, boom. The process just started. The horse took off so quickly."
And home he came, thundering down the homestretch at Pimlico Saturday and today as unnoticed as possible to his real home. A silver van transported him up I-95, but Philly fans could follow his progress as at least one of the city's TV stations beamed live coverage from above the road. "Lookin' good!" an assistant to Smarty's trainer, John Servis, exclaimed after the smallish colt had been seen home by his handlers, led off the van, walked into the barn and begun to settle down for a deserved rest. Servis has declared both himself and the horse off-limits for a couple of days, while both rest up.
Servis looked like he needed it, the circles beneath his eyes having darkened during the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness. But Smarty on this day looked better than ever.
"He came out of the race better than I did," Servis said before leaving Pimlico.
The horse looks so good that veteran Philly Park jockey Joe Rocco, who rode 10 years in Maryland before landing here, expressed complete confidence that Smarty Jones would come home with another victory in the Belmont.
"I think he'll win it as easily as he won the Preakness," said Rocco, after finishing second with a horse in an inconsequential claiming race. "If the Preakness was a mile and a half, he'd have probably won by 30 lengths. He did everything so easily. Every race he gets better and better. He was just playing around. He was having fun. He's something special, the horse. At the Belmont, he might open up 10 [lengths] at the half mile pole and just coast home."
If that should happen, Smarty Jones's owners Roy and Patricia Chapman would receive a $5 million bonus for the Triple Crown, and Smarty would become the biggest money-maker in racing history. But if Smarty's owners, trainer Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott all appeared pleased to be hitting the first jackpot of their racing lives, none seemed in the least bit boastful or ready for a change in lifestyle — although Elliott reportedly has been considering a move up from the minor leagues. For now, he is scheduled to ride in seven races here Monday, beginning with the widely unknown Sevens Wild.
"It's hard to believe, any of this," said the track announcer Jones, switching off his microphone and looking up at the helicopters. "I've never seen anything like it. Someone called me and said, 'Can you imagine you're at the center of all of horse racing?' "
Jones not only is the announcer, he is the track's public relations director and overall handyman. "I'm the PR director," he said, "but I don't have any staff. There's me, there's me and then there's me."
And there's Smarty Jones, the pride of Philly Park who on Saturday looked anything but a Philly Park horse, rather like Secretariat running away with the 1973 Belmont.
"This whole thing shows that a good horse can come from anywhere," Rocco said.
Philadelphia Park used to be known as Keystone, but it has been spruced up and presents a tidy if compact appearance. The crowds have almost always been small — until the emergence of Smarty Jones. On Kentucky Derby day, about 12,000 packed in, primarily to bet on Smarty. Another 10,000 came on Preakness day, for the same purpose; a picnic area in front of the grandstand was jammed. At a table near the paddock where Smarty Jones gear is on sale, all the T-shirts had been snapped up. Smarty Jones signs can be found from the track's front door to his barn.
"This is something. It's just hard to grasp," said one of the patrons, a thin, older man who preferred to be identified only by his first name, Harry. "The horse will be known all across the country."
Smarty Jones is a Philadelphia story that already has its national appeal. And before leaving Baltimore, Servis promised his all so that a happy ending could be written. Speaking of both his horse and his favorite hockey team, the Philadelphia Flyers, who are still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Servis said, "I hope we can both parade down Broad Street."
At Philly Park, the bettors knew that only one of those is an odds-on favorite, and it's the one wearing horseshoes not skates, Smarty Jones.