Racing: Smarty Jones on the brink of crowning an American dream

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The Independent Online

Life is on the verge of imitating art today when Smarty Jones, the horse nobody knew just over a month ago, takes a run at racing greatness in the third leg of the American Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes in New York.

Life is on the verge of imitating art today when Smarty Jones, the horse nobody knew just over a month ago, takes a run at racing greatness in the third leg of the American Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes in New York.

The backwoods colt already has the first two assignments - the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes - in his back pocket, and now tries to confirm that lowly beginnings and humble connections are no barrier to the ultimate racing achievement in the United States. Seabiscuit may have made a similar journey from obscurity, but even he did not achieve the level of Smarty Jones.

The horse, which is based in Philadelphia Park, has become an industry as much as a thoroughbred. There is Smarty Jones merchandise and a website. When he travelled to the Big Apple this week "America's horse" enjoyed a three-state police escort through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. At Belmont, he was housed in the same barn once occupied by Secretariat, perhaps the greatest horse ever in America. The best until now perhaps.

Smarty Jones is already an American dream, a horse which has found high celebrity from the most improbable of origins, as the product of serf breeding. His early career was then forced on to a different path after his original trainer was shot dead.

Smarty Jones almost killed himself as a young horse when he butted a starting gate. He fell unconscious to the ground, his skull fractured, blood pouring from his nostrils. But, just like Seabiscuit in the movies, he overcame serious injury.

The colt is owned by Roy Chapman and his wife, Pat. He is a retired car dealer and, aged 77, suffers from emphysema so badly that he finds even talking a chore. Chapman goes round in a motorised buggy and does not know how many more of Smarty Jones's races he will witness. The horse is trained by John Servis and ridden by Stewart Elliott, neither stellar personalities in the American racing firmament. Everything is ordinary. Apart from Smarty Jones himself.

Smarty Jones has drawn the outside post, stall nine, for the Belmont, a prospect which does not greatly disturb his trainer. "The game plan we've had going all along with Stewie is to watch what's going on inside of him and sit out there, get comfortable and decide where he wants to be," Servis said.

"I actually like the post. The tactic we used in the Kentucky Derby, we could sit outside of horses and Stewie doesn't have to worry about what's going on outside of him, just what's going on inside of him and secure a good position by the time he gets to the first turn.

"This means everything. I've worked my whole life to be successful as a trainer. If he wins the Triple Crown, there's nothing that stamps success more than that. With that being said, I haven't had a chance to enjoy it that much because you're always looking forward to the next race. No matter what happens after the Belmont, I'm going to kick and enjoy the accomplishments we've had already and, hopefully, have the time to relish them."

The troublesome caveat is that we have been here before in the modern era. Since 1997, five horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and fallen at the last, beaten by either the extra distance of the Belmont or a fresh horse on the up.

If he becomes the 12th Triple Crown winner, Smarty Jones will be the first in over a quarter of a century, the first since Affirmed in 1978. It may not make him run any faster, but today's 1-3 favourite has the backing of the jockey of the last hero in Steve Cauthen.

"Quite a few have had chances since Affirmed in 1978 but you could see they could be beaten," the former rider said. "For me Smarty Jones almost looks unbeatable. The way he won the Preakness Stakes suggested he had improved dramatically from the Kentucky Derby. If he just holds that form he will be almost impossible to beat and the signs are he could improve again.

"Not many horses capture the imagination like Smarty Jones has over here. He started with a local following in Pennsylvania but that's grown to first a national following and finally an international following. He's extremely gifted, has a great heart and all the gears. Everyone's wondering if this horse can step up and become the next superstar of the equine world.

"I really believe that he is going to win, that he has got all the parts to pull it off. He could be the next great horse because I don't think they've necessarily found the bottom of him. By Saturday night we could be saying this is the greatest horse that ever lived."