Horse Racing / Sports

Looking back at Smarty Jones mania 10 years later

A muscular and finely groomed chestnut stallion of ordinary stature -- age 13, still rambunctious -- was led down a stone-dust path from his barn to a breeding shed, where a mare named Love's Clever Trick awaited.

The stallion knew his job. Nine minutes later, Love's Clever Trick was back in her trailer hitched to a truck, leaving Peach Bottom, Lancaster County, Pa.

For Smarty Jones, it was just another Thursday afternoon's work.

It has been 10 years since a horse stabled at Philadelphia Park set the horse racing world briefly ablaze, winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, coming within a tantalizing length of the Triple Crown, setting attendance marks at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

In some ways, 10 years seems not so long ago, said Pat Chapman, co-owner of Smarty Jones.

"In other ways, it seems almost like a dream," Chapman said last week.

Past an old country cemetery, a brick church, and a dairy farm, the Northview Stallion Station -- "Where Bright Futures Begin" -- occupies high ground, its barns and paddocks as spiffy as the top Kentucky thoroughbred breeding operations. Smarty's paddock is closest to the office.

"They call. They want to visit. They don't listen sometimes," Paul O'Loughlin, bloodstock director at Northview Stallion Station's Pennsylvania Division in Peach Bottom, said about Smarty fanatics. "They just want to come over to the (paddock) fence. They don't understand, he can drag them over it."

It's not just dewy-eyed fans sending cards and birthday mints. In a business that trades on dreams but not necessarily emotion, horse owners also get on the phone.

"They might have one mare. 'I'd love to have a Smarty Jones. What can you do for me?'" said O'Loughlin, who said he has 50 breeding sessions scheduled for Smarty this spring season.

Smarty Mania was a central part of the mix, the last ingredient that got slots legislation passed in 2004, including a legislated portion of casino revenue that goes to the state's horse industry. The walking path from the west entrance of the Parx casino to the front door of the racetrack is called Smarty Jones Way. An apt connector, even if the connection between those parts of the local gambling industry seems more tenuous by the year.

Politicians make a yearly ritual of asking why any casino money goes to the horse industry. And despite the increased purses, any thoughts that Philadelphia might become the epicenter of East Coast racing are gone.

Smarty's stud arrangement was set just before the Belmont Stakes, in a different economic time. When the resultant exorbitant early stud fees in Kentucky, which started at $100,000 per breeding, didn't produce racehorses that came near Smarty's own prowess on the track, Smarty was back to his native state, just two exits south on Route 1 from the Chester County barn where he was born. He's doing the same work now for $7,500.

Smarty has produced plenty of good horses on the regional circuits, and 22 stakes winners. Money has still been made, almost $20 million by his progeny over the last four years. He spent last winter breeding in Uruguay, and Japanese owners who have brought their mares to the United States have found success with Smarty. One Smarty filly, Keiai Gerbera, earned more than $2.4 million.

"Consistent," John Servis, trainer of Smarty Jones when he was on the racetrack, said of Smarty as a stallion. "He's not a high-level stallion, he doesn't throw graded stake horses on a continuous basis. But his horses are consistent. They all try. They run hard. They'll (run on) turf, they'll (run on) dirt, I mean they'll do anything. As far as that goes, he's a perfect horse for this area."

"If I have any disappointment, it's that Smarty isn't being bred to some better mares," Pat Chapman said. "But he's hanging in there."

Sitting in his barn office at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Servis said: "You'd be amazed how many people that I run into say, 'You sure I haven't met you before? You look awfully familiar to me.' "

As a result of Smarty, Servis said deep-pocketed owners have sent nice horses to him over the last decade. A few of those horses were on the Derby trail, but none reached the Triple Crown races. There were earners in the group, though.

Servis now races in the winter out of Florida's Gulfstream Park, and he had offers to move his summer operation full-time to the New York tracks. Philadelphia is home. He still has Eagles season tickets and lives and dies with the Flyers. He raised his kids in Bensalem. His own father grew up at Kensington and Allegheny and got the family in the horse business by taking the El to the river to pick up a ferry to Camden, to grab a bus toward Garden State Racetrack. There, the North Catholic High student got a job walking horses to cool them down after a workout.

The Servis roots added to the Smarty story, which was a saga. The horse's original trainer, Robert Camac, who had come up with the breeding idea that produced Smarty, was murdered in 2001 along with his wife by his stepson, who had been stealing checks from horse owners to the trainer. The stepson was sentenced to 28 years in prison.

Smarty's own story added a layer of toughness, as Servis was asked every day about how the horse had been bloodied in a gate accident before he ever reached the racetrack.

As the victories piled up in 2004, Smarty's story grew. He earned a $5 million bonus offered by the owner of Oaklawn Park racetrack after the colt won two Derby preps at Oaklawn as well as the Kentucky Derby. He romped through the slop on a rainy first Saturday in May to win at Churchill Downs by 23/4 lengths.

The late co-owner of the horse, retired Philadelphia car dealer Roy Chapman, had scared a national television audience by gasping for breath right after the win. But Chapman was fine and talked at the news conference about how his horse had better get his due. Chapman died in 2006 at age 79 from complications from emphysema. (He still appears on Chapman car commercials.)

He got to enjoy watching his horse win the Preakness by 111/2 lengths, then he saw a relay team of horses take him on in the Belmont. Eventually, it was Birdstone who got by Smarty Jones in the last 10 strides, hushing the grounds.

Pat Chapman, Roy's widow, still is in charge of Smarty's breeding, and still has five broodmares. Among her horses is a nice Smarty baby trained by Servis, now a 4-year-old, named Res Judicata, back in training after a winter off. In 12 lifetime starts, the horse has earned $236,780. He won his last 2013 start, a $100,000 race at Laurel, by 41/4 lengths.

The top 3-year-old in Servis' barn is not a Smarty baby.

Undertaker was originally slated for the Derby trail, aimed for New York's Gotham Stakes. But a quarantine hit Parx from November into January after a herpesvirus scare. Undertaker couldn't ship out. Servis had entered the colt in last weekend's Tesio Stakes, a Preakness prep, but a cough knocked him out, so now the plan is to enter him in a race at Pimlico on Preakness day and then maybe shoot for the Haskell. Servis also has a nice filly named Joint Return he is aiming for the Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico the day before the Preakness.

Of the horse industry's getting a cut of casino earnings, Servis said: "We're in the fight of our lives to hold on to it." State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) has proposed shifting $250 million a year from the Race Horse Development Fund to education. It's not the first such proposal. The fund reportedly received $225 million in the last fiscal year, going to purses and to breeding programs.

"We had owners coming in from all over the world wanting horses," Servis said. "They thought, 'I don't want to come in and buy a farm if they're going to yank the money away.' There's no confidence for anybody to come in here now."

Talking about the presence of a hugely successful casino on the grounds of Parx, Servis said "the casino is the big game, so they're not putting a lot of effort into the racing industry to make it successful."

His frustrations are coupled with so many memories. In his home office, Servis built a trophy case. In the center of it are the trophies for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. There's also a single rose petal under glass taken from the winning blanket from the featured race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May 2004.

"It's pretty neat," Servis said of the petal. "It's faded -- it's not red anymore. It's almost like a yellow."

Servis said spring is his favorite time of the year, with all the Derby prep races, and new 2-year-olds coming in.

"Until they show you otherwise, you get excited about every 2-year-old that steps in your barn, because you never know when the little average-looking colt is going to be another Smarty Jones," Servis said. "You just don't know till you put them out there. You start letting yourself dream a little bit."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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SMARTY JONES


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