No one keeps up with this `Jones'

Smarty Jones: Trouble has never been far off this colt's tail. Yet so far, this Derby contender has not been caught. Not once.

Kentucky Derby

April 29, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If there exists a horse in the 130th Kentucky Derby who can capture the country's heart, then it's Smarty Jones.

He is undefeated after six races, and if he wins the Derby on Saturday at Churchill Downs, he would become the first undefeated Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.

Smarty Jones would earn $5.8 million, the $800,000 winner's check plus a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park. That would be the richest payday in racing history.

The chestnut colt nearly died last summer at Philadelphia Park when, while training in the morning, he suddenly reared in the starting gate and cracked his head on an iron bar. He fractured his skull and several bones in his face. He collapsed in a heap, bleeding and still as a corpse.

Smarty Jones' owners, Patricia and Roy Chapman, owe his breeding to the respected Mid-Atlantic horseman Bob Camac, who was slain before the colt reached his first birthday.

The Chapmans, who live in Florida and Pennsylvania, are retired, and Roy, 77, is so sick with emphysema that he might not be able to attend the Derby. If he does attend, he'll be in a wheelchair attached by a breathing tube to an oxygen tank.

Smarty Jones' trainer, John Servis, and jockey, Stewart Elliott, are fixtures at Philadelphia Park, a minor league track, but little known outside the region. For both, this is their first Derby.

Servis, an outgoing 45-year-old West Virginia native, relishes his role as spokesman for the Smarty Jones' camp. He holds court each morning outside Barn 42, and each morning the crowds grow larger.

"I've dreamed about the Kentucky Derby since I was 14," he says, wearing a Smarty Jones cap on his head. "I wasn't sure I'd ever make it here, especially with a horse like this. He's overcome so much. There's nothing I'd like to see more than their throwing a blanket of roses over my horse's back."

Despite Smarty Jones' flawless record and fan appeal, he will probably not be the betting favorite in the Derby. Sure, he's won all six races, but who has he beaten? Sure, in his last race he handled 1 1/8 miles, but what's going to happen when his sprinter's pedigree meets that additional eighth of a mile in the Kentucky Derby?

"If you watch him train, you won't have any apprehension about his going a mile and a quarter," Servis says. "I mean, this horse just goes and goes. I don't know when the cap's coming. I just know I haven't been able to get him tired yet."

Servis began training Smarty Jones last summer after the Chapmans lost Camac, their longtime trainer responsible for the breeding of Smarty Jones. Camac and his wife were murdered in December 2001.

At that time Smarty Jones was 10 months old. When he was 2 1/2 years old and ready to learn how to become a racehorse, the Chapmans sent him to Servis. He had the colt less than a month when disaster struck.

Smarty Jones was standing in the starting gate one July morning last year, getting used to the odd contraption. He was so quiet Servis thought he might have dozed off. Then suddenly he reared, straight up, and smashed his head on an iron bar at the top of the gate.

"The first thing I thought was, he's dead," Servis says. "Picture him standing in the gate, and then he hits his head, and then he's lying in the stall. All four of his legs were buckled underneath him, and his head was actually underneath him, in between his legs.

"He was out cold, and he was just lying there. And I'm like, `Oh, my God, this horse killed himself.' ... Blood was just pouring out his nostrils. Swelling was immediate. The whole side of his head was so swollen."

Smarty Jones was transported immediately to the New Jersey Equine Clinic where, amazingly, workers saved him without surgery. He remained there three weeks and then spent one month on the farm. When he returned to Philadelphia Park, Servis gradually reintroduced him to the starting gate. He eventually went back in, but to this day he's often reluctant about it.

Smarty Jones didn't start racing until November, and he won his first start at Philadelphia Park by 7 3/4 lengths. Two weeks later he won his second by 15 lengths. Then, Servis shipped him to Aqueduct in January for the Count Fleet Stakes. Smarty Jones won by five.

At that point, he and the Chapmans plotted a path to the Kentucky Derby. They chose Arkansas because, Servis says, "quite frankly, we thought it was the easiest route for the horse."

They didn't even know, he says, that Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., was offering a $5 million bonus to any horse who could sweep the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, both at Oaklawn, and then the Kentucky Derby.

Smarty Jones captured the two Oaklawn stakes and snared the Southwest there for good measure. Then, with Servis leading the charge, the undefeated colt headed to Kentucky for the greatest challenge yet.

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