When the connections of Smarty Jones were plotting their potential path to the Kentucky Derby, the prospect of ultimately receiving a $5 million bonus check wasn't even an afterthought.
"That was no factor whatsoever," trainer John Servis said yesterday after returning to Pennsylvania following Smarty's rousing victory Saturday in the Churchill Downs mud.
"Arkansas was the path of least resistance, and we really liked the way the distances progressed [from 1 1/16th miles in the Rebel Stakes to 1 1/8 in the Arkansas Derby to 1 1/4 in Kentucky].
"And, there is a great atmosphere [in Arkansas]. It's quiet and the track is good. The reason Mr. [Roy] and Mrs. [Pat] Chapman and I sent him that way was we thought it was the best way to get to the Kentucky Derby."
Forsaking the traditional routes - through Florida and/or New York or California - obviously was the right choice for an unbeaten, if previously relatively obscure colt who prompted Oaklawn Park owner Charles Cella to fully insure the whopping bonus after the Arkansas Derby.
Don't expect a repeat next year, even if the latest 3-year-old phenom makes the same trip through Arkansas.
Only one other Arkansas Derby winner, Sunny's Halo in 1983, has also won the Kentucky classic. "We might consider it [the $5 million bonus] for the next centennial," joked Oaklawn Park vice president Lou Cella, son of the owner.
The idea for the bonus was the outgrowth of Charles Cella's desire to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the track that has been a fixture in the family.
"Hundreds of things were suggested for the centennial," said track announcer-simulcast director Terry Wallace, "but none of us was bold enough to suggest what [the owner] ended up with. I think part of it was that Charlie's grandfather underwrote $50,000 to fund the World's Fair Handicap in St. Louis 100 years ago."
Offering a huge bonus was not uncharted territory for Oaklawn Park, which 17 years ago put up a $1 million bonus that would go to the any horse who won both the Arkansas and Kentucky derbies. Demons Begone won in Arkansas, but bled in Kentucky and never finished.
Half of the current bonus ($2.5 million) was insured with Levin Insurance Services in Louisville before the Oaklawn Park meeting began in January. The other half - presumably at a steeper price - was covered just two days before the Kentucky Derby.
"Everything about this horse was pointing to a very impressive Kentucky Derby," said Lou Cella after Smarty Jones ran the last eighth of a mile in the $1 million Arkansas Derby in 12.5 seconds. "He had the fastest time of any horse at that point and we thought we'd better go back and fully insure the bonus. We came to terms 48 hours before the Kentucky Derby."
Still undecided is when to present the check to the Chapmans, but Wallace said "I expect it is imperative to do it before the Preakness."
With its live meeting ended with the Arkansas Derby, Oaklawn Park was open for simulcasting only on Kentucky Derby Day. Because of Smarty Jones' immense popularity there, the track had to pay out $1.9 million more than it collected last Saturday. That money will return to the track through simulcast channels.
"No simulcast-only track even thinks it needs to have that much money," said Wallace. "People were being paid by check."
"Everyone at Oaklawn - in Arkansas, for that matter - has adopted this horse," said Lou Cella. "They have fallen in love with him. Now he is America's horse, coast to coast."
And a very rich one at that.
What: Second leg of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown
Where: Pimlico Race Course
When: May 15, post time 6:04 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4. Coverage begins at 5 p.m.