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Elliott's ride fromobscurity to fame

WashPost: Once down on his luck, jockey on verge of Triple Crown
Smarty Jones has carried Stewart Elliott out of racing's shadows to the brink of immortality.
Smarty Jones has carried Stewart Elliott out of racing's shadows to the brink of immortality.Amy Sancetta / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

To really know Stewart Elliott and how he vaulted from obscurity to a seat on the back of Smarty Jones, it helps to know something about his father. The riding career of Dennis Elliott foreshadowed that of the son. The father never got away from the "B" level race tracks, although he came so close to escaping them it was as if a wheel of chance rolled around and stopped one click off. The son became king of the "B's" -- to that modest extent, he outdid the father. But that was all there was until, unexpectedly, the wheel came click-clicking around for the younger Elliott and, for him, it stopped just right.

One day last November, the king of the "B's" had a choice to make. He didn't know the import of it at the time, but he knew horses. A six-furlong race was scheduled at Philadelphia Park. One trainer, John Servis, offered Elliott a ride on Smarty Jones. Another trainer, Ned Allard, asked Elliott to ride Deputy Rummy. Neither horse had been to the races, but Elliott made the right pick. Deputy Rummy has become what Allard called "a nice useful horse." Smarty Jones has carried Elliott, 39, out of racing's shadows to the brink of immortality.

It is almost his -- no matter that anything else should go wrong in his life, as much already has. He can guarantee enduring fame if on Saturday he can help Smarty Jones stretch out to a mile and a half and win the "test of champions," the Belmont Stakes, and become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. "I think our chances are very good," he said one misty morning at Monmouth Park, the whitewashed seaside racing emporium where he had just finished breezing a better breed of horse than normally found at Philly Park. Smarty Jones's Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories have produced lottery-like payoffs for Elliott and changed his prospects to the extent that he will be riding mostly at Monmouth for the next few months, out of the "B's," for now.

But his manner is the same as when he first climbed aboard Smarty -- steady, reserved.

"After his last race, the Preakness, he just won that so easy," Elliott said, "I think we'll be fine."

Elliott could tarry on a quiet morning at Monmouth to explain how he has found the right demeanor and how it can be the difference in winning and losing a race, or making it through life, but how easily it can slip away and has slipped away at times from him. He cited his difficulties in keeping his weight down during much of his 23-year-career and how discouraging those struggles sometimes can be. He's suffered numerous injuries, even being sidelined for a year and a half after being thrown by a horse and landing on his back on the rail. Four years ago, he found his life in shambles: He had brushes with the law that came to light after his Derby-winning ride, and he had a serious drinking problem. For that, he entered a treatment center's 28-day program -- and has been clean since. And he has been the dominant jockey at Philly Park, his victory total soaring above 3,200.

"This business is a tough business. There's a lot of ups and downs," he said. "It's the kind of business you can't look too far in advance. It's day-to-day, really."

The quest for the Triple has been a setup for misery. At best it's been a tantalizing near-miss. Yet with each failed attempt, the public's temptation has grown only stronger to think that for once there will be a Triple Crown winner. An America too often hung up on glitz and instant gratification still has time to savor a developing, improbable story connected to the Triple Crown. This time around, part of that story belongs to the jockey up from the "B's" and his jockey-father who has remained at a distance, in Florida, largely voiceless as the story has unfolded, but happy to explain how the past was prologue.

In the Blood
Dennis Elliott, who has trained horses near Ocala, Fla. for the past 10 years, was born and raised near London. He developed an interest in race horses from his father, a newspaper printer who enjoyed going to the track. With "an itchy foot" and an eye toward a glamorous life, Dennis took off for the West Indies, where he rode for a year and a half in Trinidad. Back in London, he told his father he wanted to continue riding in Australia. "You know, son, Australia is a long way away. Why not North America?" And so Dennis Elliott "got a boat over to Canada. My plan was to take a look at racing in Toronto. If things didn't work out, I would work my way down through the states to Florida and get back to the islands. But the first or second morning out at Woodbine, I seen this young lady in front of me in line at the track kitchen, and she would be my future wife. It made me stay around Canada."

Myhill Elliott, who still works at Woodbine as an assistant trainer, had come over from Scotland in 1957 with her father -- trainer J.J. Stewart, her family having been involved in racing for generations. She worked with the horses. Dennis rode. Stewart was born in 1965. The parents now are divorced, but remain friends. They have been talking regularly on the phone about their son's unexpected turn of fortune. It's something beyond their dreams for him since he was drawn to horse racing, almost inevitably. "I remember going to the barns with my mom and dad on the weekends," he said, relaxed on a sofa in one of Monmouth Park's offices. "They used to have a little pony and they would put me on the pony and hook us up to the walking machine. And I would just ride around on that pony the whole time until they were ready to leave the track."

The father's career unfolded at Woodbine to little fanfare. But this is how close the spotlight came to finding him: It zeroed in on his family, his brother. It might have shone on Dennis, had he been back home in England. Back there, R.P. Elliott, also a jockey, a year younger than Dennis, came to prominence in the '60s as surprisingly as Stewart would a generation later with Smarty Jones. In both instances, it took an unlikely combination of circumstances. R.P. Elliott got to ride -- and win -- for the Queen.

And from there, he grabbed a ride around the world on horseback. He rode in India, South Africa, Argentina, Hong Kong.

"Why don't you come to Hong Kong?" he wrote in a letter to Dennis, who at the time was looking for a place to turn because he no longer could make weight in Canada or the States. In Hong Kong, he would be allowed to weigh 12 or 13 pounds more, as much as 125 pounds. The Elliotts gathered up Stewart and his sister Michelle and moved there for five years, in the 1970s. There, at age 12, Stewart decided that he would become a jockey.

He announced it to none other than Hall of Famer Bill Hartack, the only jockey besides Eddie Arcaro to win five Kentucky Derbys. Hartack was finishing up his career in Hong Kong, and one night was among a group of jockeys visiting the Elliotts for a poker game. "I was talking with Hartack," Stewart said, "and I told him that I wanted to be a jockey, and then he told my parents, and so they asked me, 'So you want to be a jockey?' "

The mother preferred some other phase of the game for him. But the father didn't mind having the boy follow him, believing there would be more in it for his son than there had been for him. In his son, Dennis thought he saw he makings of a jockey -- someone who might be "aggressive but also cool in tough situations."

Dennis Elliott's 23-year riding career ended ignominiously in Hong Kong, not at the track but on his bathroom floor. There, he passed out after turning the room into a sauna in a desperate effort to lose weight. "I was one of those jocks who hit the steam box a lot," Dennis said. "And I had a habit of taking hot baths in Epsom salts to drain out what was left in the body. The body's like a sponge, you can dry it out. That particular day, I went into the bathroom. I made it as hot as possible. I put towels under the door. Then, trying to get out of the tub, I felt myself passing out."

In the hospital, he said, eight to 10 pounds were restored intravenously.

After he recovered, the Elliotts set out for the U.S., buying a 25-acre farm in New Jersey. There in the late '70s, Dennis started over in the business as a trainer. "My mom got some riding horses together and gave riding lessons," Stewart said. "My father was always driving to Garden State or wherever to take care of the horses. I was always at the farm with my mom, and I would help do the stalls and feed the horses."

It wasn't long before he was galloping thoroughbreds, then dropping out of school to earn his livelihood at the track. As a 16-year-old apprentice rider in 1981, Stewart Elliott was Atlantic City's leading jockey. But in the following years, his production slipped and he began to drift from track to track. He's ridden at more than two dozen tracks in all, mostly the seldom-celebrated ones. After being thrown onto the rail, he said, "I got pretty heavy. I blew up to about 135. I just started galloping horses because I was so heavy and I didn't really have the desire." But he wasn't making much money either; so to get back into jockey's silks, he undertook the task of losing weight.

Like his father, and countless jockeys over the years, Elliott has often struggled to keep his weight to the abnormally low 110 or 111 pounds demanded of jockeys. "Weight has always been a problem except when I started and was naturally light," he said. "It's something that never goes away." Sometimes, he said, he gets into streaks, like now, when it's not terribly difficult maintaining weight. But he readily admitted that in the past he needed extended sessions in the jockeys-room "sweatbox" and also "flipped" or "heaved," race track terms for self-induced vomiting.

"Oh, yeah, sure," he said. "I've tried it all. You know, I've heaved. I've used water pills. The sauna. I've tried jogging, tried to do it more natural."

He praised veteran jockey Shane Sellers, who was joined by prominent fellow riders the week of the Kentucky Derby in criticizing the sport's weight restrictions. At the time, Stewart Elliott lacked the cachet to help. He arrived at Churchill Downs with the reputation of a "B" track jockey, if he was known at all. He scrambled that week just to get a few rides so he could become accustomed to the track.

But the more important thing was, he was accustomed to Smarty, and Smarty to him, the horse having won with him aboard all six times out of the gate. Servis stuck with Elliott, with the blessing of owners Roy and Pat Chapman, even though Servis knew about the jockey's checkered personal life and had informed the owners, with all suspecting it would be uncovered in the wake of a Derby victory and scrutiny of Elliott's past. As it happened, the Associated Press reported that Elliott pleaded guilty in court to assault after beating up a man in 2000, receiving a sentence of one-year probation and an order to pay $13,900 to cover the man's medical bills. He failed to disclose the matter on his application to ride in the Kentucky Derby and would be fined. The Asbury Park Press followed up with a report of other incidents in 2000 involving Elliott and a former girlfriend.

"At first it was embarrassing it came out," he said. "It's still embarrassing, but in a way I'm glad that it's out. This way, everybody can know whatever they want to know. I got nothing to hide. Just let everybody know it, and that's history, that's behind me now. I hope we can go on from there." Drinking was involved in both cases, he said, and that's when he went into the alcohol rehab program.

"For me, I started this life at a young age, kind of went from being a kid into a man's world," he said. "You know, I kind of missed out maybe on a lot of things kids get to do. But I wanted that. That was my choice. So I kind of grew up fast, I guess, started drinking at a young age. Through the years it gradually got worse. Sometimes there was too much time on my hands. I started drinking more, depression, I guess."

During 2000, he also missed the chance to ride Servis's sharp filly Jostle because he was in such bad physical shape. "There were some situations where he didn't fulfill his obligations," Servis said during one of his many recent news conferences. "And, you know, Stewart said it better than anybody. He had to hit rock bottom before his eyes opened up. I can tell you since that day, he's been happy. Now he loves what he's doing, where before it was like a job, where he had to go do it."

So the story of the king of the "B's" has a dark side. But that wasn't as important to Smarty's connections as their trust in him as Smarty's rider. They kept the jockey for the biggest races of all in a decision that seemed as practical as it was sentimental. They simply believed there was no jockey on earth with a better chance than Elliott to see Smarty home at Churchill Downs, and beyond.

"Stewart's always had a lot of natural ability," his father said. "He has very good hands and seat -- the way he sits on a horse. He's a very balanced rider. He also is a very good judge of pace. And he always keeps his cool."

Dennis traveled to Arkansas in April to watch Stewart ride Smarty in the Arkansas Derby, and afterward they spent some time together in the jockeys' room.

"Are you going to come to the Derby, Dad?" Dennis said his son asked.

"No, I'm not. But ask your mother. Make sure you take your mother to the Derby."

Dennis laughed. "I knew if the horse went on, the publicity would grow," he said. "I'd rather have her handle it than me."

For the time being, Myhill is living at Stewart's home in Washington Crossing, Pa., on the Delaware River, helping her son. "He's made me a secretary," she said. "He's had me doing all the fan mail. A horse like Smarty Jones coming into his life? It's like a fairy tale."

American Dream
Dennis watched the first two legs of the Triple Crown at the home of Bud and Lydia Lauck, the Elliotts' former Jersey neighbors who again live close to the father.

"We're not going to jinx it," Lydia Lauck said the other day. "We're going to watch the Belmont together."

Dennis is still pleased to keep things the same and stay removed. If a father's role is to pave the way and then step aside and say, "Come on, son, come on by," that's how this father is doing it.

"Have you got any kids?" Lydia Lauck asked. "That's how we feel about Stewart. There have been a lot of tears here. We were blubbering about something yesterday.

"He's had his troubles," she said, "but he's also the American dream. He's made it through."

Others have been rooting him on.

"I've been screaming and yelling, watching him," said Joe Rocco, veteran Philadelphia Park jockey. "Stewy can ride with anybody."

Then there's Allard, the Philly Park trainer whose horse Elliott skipped in favor of Smarty. "Stewart has been riding for me for 15, 20 years," said Allard, who has entered long shot Tap Dancer in the Belmont. "I knew he was capable of handling this situation. None of this is a shock to me. He'll be a lot busier this summer with better horses. He rode 98 percent of my horses; now that'll be cut to about five percent."

The morning mist at Monmouth turned to rain, until water ran from the eaves of the backstretch stable where Lauren Vannozzi cleaned horses' equipment for the trainer Jason Servis, John's older brother. Vannozzi, 22, an exercise rider who has been a jockey, is Elliott's fiancee. They met after he came out of rehab. "She took my mind off the past," he said, "and I just kind of concentrated on staying straight." She stressed that his success with Smarty has not changed him in any apparent way, except to say, "Maybe, if anything, he feels he's really accomplished something great."