Barbaro, Seabiscuit, and Smarty Jones Part III

Shortly after Smarty Jones had been shipped back from Florida to Philadelphia Park he suffered what could have been a catasophic injury and ended not only his racing career, but his life. During a training session preparing for his first race an accident almost ended his career before it started. He reared up and hit his head on an iron bar, fracturing his skull and shattering the orbital bones (around the eye socket) on his left side. Servis thought, “he just killed himself. The accident nearly cost the horse his left eye, but he recovered in a short time and was back in training.

Servis noticed that in his training Smarty Jones was full of run and wanted to go fast all the time. He developed a program where he purposely undertrained his young horse and did not let him go fast very often. He felt the horse was so talented he needed to train him lightly and let his talent take over from there. They did relatively long easy gallops weekly to maintain his natural endurance.

Smarty easily won his first two races at Philadelphia Park. He was ridden by Stewart Elliot, a minor league jockey who was riding on small tracks in the east and even though he had ridden some 3300 winners, none of his rides had been in large races like the Derby or the Breeders Cup, or even many of the stakes races around the country.

Elliott’s father, Denis, was a jockey and his mother was a show horse rider, so it was in his blood early to ride race horses. He dropped out of school at age 16 and started his professional career at Phildelphia Park. During the next 20 years Elliot became a heavy drinker and was convicted of two cases of battery. At one point he became so depressed over his life that he quit riding and started bumming around race tracks working at odd jobs like cleaning stalls in some of the horse barns. But after 18 months and meeting John Servis the desire to ride returned and he cleaned himself up. He began as an exercise boy and then successfully rode several of Servis’ horses in local races . He lost weight and was assigned to ride Smarty in his first two races. He was overwhelmed with the horse’s talent. He had never ridden a horse of this ability, one who could go fast, or accelerate so quickly off a slow pace. He was hopeful that he could continue to ride the horse as it went into more important races, but was also realistic. He knew that most owners hired name jockeys who had experience at the highest level as the races became more important. But Servis never considered replacing Elliot.

Elliott and Servis communicated almost daily about Smarty Jones and he was helpful to Servis with feedback about what the young horse needed. A team was beginning to form: The owners who had never had a really good horse, the trainer who was young and had never trained a horse good enough for one of the important races like the Kentucky Derby, a jockey who had only ridden horses of limited talent on small tracks, and finally the little brown horse who had some emerging gifts they all served.

After Smarty won his first two races Servis went to Chappie with the suggestion that they winter the horse in Arkansas. But Chappie was curious, “Why Arkansas?”

“It’s a good place to train,” Servis explained, “and there are some good races Smarty could do well in. Chappie, I think this is a good horse and he might go someplace in racing. I have a plan for his development that I think will work and if we do it this way he may qualify for the Derby.” According to Chapman they never deviated from Servis’ plan in any way.

Servis had worked in the obscurity where most trainers work who don’t have big money behind them. But he was a self confident young man who felt that if he ever had the chance to work with a top horse he could do the job. When Smarty Jones came to him he could see that this horse was different from any horse he had ever trained. His plan to go to Arkansas was to avoid the hot shots who went to California and Florida for their preparation for the 3 year-old campaign which included the triple crown. He liked the idea of a place where he would have time without national pressure. In training Servis discovered he had an exceptional horse, but wanted time to develop his ability, even though he would be tested in Arkansas stakes races. Those races would tell him if he just had a fast horse, or a potentially great horse.
Smarty easily won his first two races in Arkansas. His next two scheduled races were the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. For years Oaklawn had offered a $5,000,000 bonus to any horse that won both the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby and then went on to win the Kentucky Derby. No horse had ever won that bonus. Smarty proceed to win both races impressively and set up his attempt to win the bonus at the Kentucky Derby. He was being entered as the only contender who was undefeated. Although few experts had seen him run, most remained skeptical, favoring the better known horses from California and Florida. Even though the betters made Smarty the favorite in the Derby, the experts were not so sure.

The City of Philadelphia had not won a championship with any of it’s sports teams for decades. When the Philadelphia Enquirer and some other papers and national magazines like Sport’s Illustrated ran stories on Smarty a wave of enthusiasm swept the city. Smarty was Philadelphia bred and trained, and an outsider, considered inferior to the Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, and California bred horses who had won most of the great stakes races over the past half century and the underdog status appealed to blue collar, tough minded Philadelphia fans. and the thought of a windfall bonus of $5,000,000 was intoxicating. Smarty was undefeated and had brought Philadelphia the national spotlight. So local betters backed their horse and made him the favorite.

When Chapman was interviewed he was quick to point out that “we have never raced at this level before, referring to the Kentucky Derby. “We never thought we’d get there until we met Smarty and that guy over there,” pointing to Servis.

“You know Smarty is not too impressive to look at,” said Servis. “He’s a small horse, but he is bullet-fast. He has an interesting pedagree that might explain his stamina, even though his parents were more sprinters then distance runners. In his bloodline we find Secretariat and Native Dancer, two of the greatest horses in history. “

“Looking at his background many thought that Smarty would be an outstanding sprinter and not a distance horse, and with his explosive speed it’s understandable,” said Allen Kershaw of Gainesborough Farms, home of Smarty’s sire, Elusive Quality. “But that doesn’t mean he can’t go further.”

It was time to find our what they really had. It was time to go to Lexington and the Kentucky Derby.

About Fred

I am the running coach of Quest Club of Arizona, an adult running club. Formerly coached at Phoenix College for 18 years, and have coached a number of elite runners including Trina Painter and Lisa Weidenbach. Most recently coached Priscilla Hein, graduate of ASU and Olympic Trials semi finalist. In addition to coaching I am the sports publicist for the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference in track and field, and the Meet Director for the NJCAA Region Championships in Cross Country and Track and Field.
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1 Response to Barbaro, Seabiscuit, and Smarty Jones Part III

  1. chris says:

    I am actually responding to your blog about AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, not about the horses (which I have also loved).

    I just took the kids to see A INCONVENIENT TRUTH. What an amazing movie. It’s like watching a horror movie, only worse. Thanks for making it “homework.” Did you list the website in your blog? Probably, but in case you didn’t here it is: On that website, there are all sorts of things people can do to help with the environment–easy things.

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