Smarty Jones' Ride To Fame

Derby winner and his handlers overcome adversity, obscurity

Preakness Stakes

May 09, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Smarty Jones was so quiet and calm that morning in the starting gate at Philadelphia Park that he might have dozed off. But then, suddenly, as if stung by a hornet, he reared and cracked his head on an iron rod at the top of the gate.

As suddenly as he had gone up, he went down. He crumpled upon himself, his legs underneath his belly, blood gushing from his head.

Pete Van Trump, who had been sitting on his back, hung on until his mount vanished beneath him. He slid his feet onto platforms on either side of the starting-gate stall, reached down and yanked on the reins, trying to rouse Smarty Jones.

Van Trump wasn't sure whether the horse knocked himself out, but after a couple of seconds, Smarty Jones struggled to his feet. He staggered to regain his balance. Van Trump rode him slowly back to the barn, leaving a trail of blood on the track.

That same track at Philadelphia Park, 9 1/2 months later, is where Smarty Jones, the country's darling horse, prepares for the second act of the three-act play known as the Triple Crown. After capturing the Kentucky Derby eight days ago at Churchill Downs, he will take aim on the Preakness Stakes in six days at Pimlico.

Smarty Jones will arrive Wednesday in Baltimore as the shining star of the country's thoroughbreds. He is the first Kentucky Derby winner in 21 years to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He has already earned $6.8 million. He is undefeated after seven races.

The best-selling book and last year's popular movie about the champion horse Seabiscuit transcended sport because it captured an era in American history. Seabiscuit rose out of the Depression and lifted the spirit of the nation.

The story of Smarty Jones, his elderly owners and their obscure, hard-knocking trainer and jockey might provide the same sort of feel-good tale.

"It's a bright light in the midst of a lot of really dark stories," said John Servis, Smarty Jones' trainer.

The story was far from the telling last July when Smarty Jones left the track bleeding from his face and nostrils and returned to Servis' Barn 11. A veterinarian was summoned. He told the barn workers to run cold water on Smarty Jones' head until the bleeding stopped.

Maureen Donnelly, Servis' assistant, said that an hour and a half later blood still dripped from the horse's nostrils. The left side of his face around his eye had swelled. But still, Smarty Jones remained alert. He kept squealing for his food.

He spent the rest of the day in his stall, under the veterinarian's care. Barn workers stayed with him late into the night. But overnight the swelling intensified, and the next morning Smarty Jones was transported by van to the New Jersey Equine Clinic, about a 45-minute ride from Philadelphia Park.

Dr. Patty Hogan, a veterinarian, said Smarty Jones arrived with "tremendous swelling" that prevented her from telling whether he still had a left eye. She determined he had fractured his skull in multiple places and shattered his eye socket. She couldn't operate, she said, because the bones were in such little pieces there was nothing for her to put back together.

Instead, she and her colleagues treated the area around the eye with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication for three days. The swelling finally subsided enough that she could see his eyeball. Then, they wrapped his head with "ridiculously thick bandages" and continued the medications. Because of the bandages, Hogan and crew began calling their patient Quasimodo.

"He was a great patient," Hogan said. "That horse had a great personality. He was always up, always waiting at the gate. He always wanted to eat, and he whinnied at all the horses walking into the barn. He was spunky and full of himself."

Speedy recovery

Eleven days after being admitted, Smarty Jones was released. His fractures had healed. His sight was fine. He spent one month at a farm and then returned to Servis.

For Smarty Jones' owners, Patricia and Roy Chapman, the colt's recovery meant they had perhaps one last chance to graduate from the minor league of Philadelphia Park. Before Smarty Jones' injury, Servis liked what he had seen in the raw, speedy horse. Servis had told Hogan at the clinic to take good care of this one; he was special.

Smarty Jones was one of the last two racehorses the Chapmans owned. Because of Roy's failing health, they began to downsize. A lifelong smoker who became wealthy by selling cars and buying car dealerships, Chapman, 78, has emphysema.

The Chapmans sold their 100-acre Someday Farm in New London, Pa. And then, despondent over the death of their longtime friend and trainer Bob Camac, they sold most of their horses.

Camac and his wife, Maryann, were murdered in December 2001 at their New Jersey home. Maryann's son, Wade Russell, was arrested and later sentenced to 28 years in prison after pleading guilty to aggravated manslaughter. Camac had apparently confronted Russell in a money dispute.

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