In the search for a winner, one of the soundest truisms in the sport of horseracing is the advice to look for the story. In the case of Smarty Jones, the colt who won the 130th Kentucky Derby 12 days ago, the problem is more of where to start telling it. Smarty's tale involves plotlines that would be thrown out as farfetched if Hollywood's most imaginative scriptwriters presented them. The horse nearly killed himself. His former trainer was killed. His owner is hanging on to life by a thread. It is all there: murder and mayhem, rags and riches, love and money, and mortality; perhaps even, the day after tomorrow, another step towards immortality.
On Saturday, Smarty Jones is to take on nine rivals in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. The race is the second leg of the famed American Triple Crown, achieved by only 11 horses in more than a century. Smarty arrived at the Maryland track yesterday from his stables in Philadelphia and more than 100,000 people are expected to turn up to watch his bid for glory. The American nation has taken him to heart, as they have done equine folk heroes before him: horses such as Seabiscuit, who did make it to the silver screen, Swaps, John Henry, Kelso, Man O'War, Cigar and Secretariat.
Let us go back to the start. Smarty Jones is owned by Roy and Pat Chapman, from Pennsylvania. She went to Bryn Mawr, the toney girl's school, gained a social work degree, and started earning her living. He grew up in Philadelphia, joined the US Navy, worked as a trucker, became a car salesman and eventually ran his own vehicle-dealership chain. They are an ordinary enough couple, it is just the way life has touched them that is extraordinary.
They met when Pat went to buy a new car. Chapman sold her a 1976 Ford Granada and six years later they married, second time round for both. Like many successful business folk, their hobby became horses, first steeplechasers (theirs was Maryland Hunt Cup winner Uncle Merlin, who led the field in the 1990 Grand National until his jockey fell off at Bechers' the second time), then Flat racers.
Their trainer and adviser was local man Bobby Camac, who guided then towards buying a yearling filly - subsequently named I'll Get Along - for $40,000 (£22,500), (buttons in bloodstock terms) at the 1993 Keeneland Sales. I'll Get Along won 12 minor races and retired to the Chapman's small, hobby, their stud. Camac advised them on the budget-priced $10,000 mating with unproven, unfashionable stallion Elusive Quality that produced Smarty Jones. But shortly before the young horse was to begin career as a racehorse came tragedy. Camac and his wife Maryann were shot to death by his stepson (now serving 28 years) in what appeared to be a vengeance killing over money. The shocking double slaying of the man who had become a friend so affected the Chapmans that they were on the verge of pulling out of the sport.
But they were persuaded by another friend, veteran horseman George Isaacs, to keep at least Smarty Jones. The little chestnut had, after all, been born on the same day as Pat's mother - February 28 - 12 years after her death, and had been given her childhood nickname. And consider the names of the other horses in his immediate family. His four grandparents are called Gone West, Touch Of Greatness, Smile and Don't Worry Bout Me. Spooky, or what?
Smarty's training was taken over by John Servis, another of the handlers at Philadelphia Park. And three weeks later, things went badly wrong. Smarty, always a feisty character, took exception to the practice starting gate, reared up and all but brained himself on its iron superstructure. He crashed to the ground and lay unconscious for a good 30 seconds, blood pouring from his nostrils from internal bleeding in his skull. Servis thought he was dead. The colt was rushed to the top horse hospital in New Jersey, where he was dubbed Quasimodo. His left eye socket was so swollen and distorted that the eyeball could not be seen. He had smashed the socket and sustained hairline skull fractures but, extraordinarily, was back in the training barn two months later.
The accident may even have been a blessing in disguise, for it allowed him time to develop and mature and although his two-year-old season last year was restricted to just two races in November, he won both of them by daylight. "I thought he was dead, for sure," Servis, 45, said. " But he's South Philly tough. He'd be a cheesesteak lover for sure."
For Servis, just as for the Chapmans, the coming of Smarty Jones has been a dream. And add, too, into the pinch-yourself equation the man in the saddle, Stewart Elliott. Neither the trainer nor the jockey are greenhorns; they have both been grafting out a living in the game for some time up and down the Atlantic seaboard circuit. They rule the roost at Philadelphia Park, a track that serves America's fifth-largest city but barely merits a mention in the larger racing world.
But this unlikely equine hero has taken them for the ride of their lives. "After all this time, why should it happen now?," said Elliott, 39, who has partnered more than 3,000 winners and at one time was riding for $400 at state fairs. "It goes to show that in this business, you never know." The rollercoaster started in earnest when Smarty opened his three-year-old campaign in the style his first season ended. Two easy wins confirmed to Servis, Elliott and the Chapmans that their pride and joy was, indeed, an athlete of above-average talent and worthy of consideration for America's premier event, the Run for the Roses.
The team behind him went for what is normally regarded as the soft option, two races at Oaklawn Park, a lesser track in Arkansas. But there was method in the apparent madness of not fully tempering their star in the crucible of top-level competition before the big day. Oaklawn Park, to celebrate its centennial, put up a $5m bonus to any horse who could win both of its trials, the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby itself.
The completion of the treble is now in the formbook and the nearly $6m Smarty Jones earned in prize and bonus money on Mayday was the biggest prize payout in racing history. Starting favourite (so-called pedigree and form experts may have dismissed the unfashionably-bred, unfashionably-raced little streetfighter from the wrong side of any track, but punters and racegoers did not) on a rain-soaked afternoon, Smarty and Elliott splashed their way through muddy conditions to win by three lengths.
Milestones abounded. Victory made Elliott and Servis the first Kentucky Derby rookies (they usually watch on TV) to take the race since Ronnie Franklin and Bud Delp with the subsequent Triple Crown champion Spectacular Bid in 1979. Smarty Jones was among only four undefeated Kentucky Derby heroes after Seattle Slew (1977), Majestic Prince (1969), Morvich (1922) and Regret (1915).
More may come as Smarty, his journeyman trainer and jockey and his owners continue on their stardust gallop. The magic has come just in time for Chapman, 77, who suffers bad emphysema, can hardly talk and gets around only in a motorised buggy.
The Chapmans have been offered blank cheques for their colt (Sheikh Mohammed bought his sire's yearling sister for $3.8m at auction last year), but he is not for sale. "If we sold the horse for five-plus million," said Pat, 64, "What would we do differently in our life? We're all having a ball with him. And he keeps Bob with us. His legacy goes on through this horse."
The last horse to complete the Triple Crown of Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes was Affirmed 26 years ago. It is a hard call; since then nine have tried and failed. But the town where Smarty's owners live is called New Hope and their little stud is called Some Day Farm. That hope, and that day, have arrived. with the horse who came back from the dead.Reuse content