LOUISVILLE, Ky. Here we go again.
A nice but hardly heralded horse wins the Kentucky Derby. That's what happened last year with Funny Cide, and it happened again Saturday with Smarty Jones.
Splashing his way past Lion Heart in the stretch, the 3-year-old chestnut colt won America's premier horse race and is well on his way to winning racing fans' hearts.
''He seems to be the people's horse,'' Derby rookie rider Stewart Elliott said, echoing the sentiments of those who watched Funny Cide go for the Triple Crown last year.
The victory triggered the biggest payday in the sport, with the undefeated favorite earning a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park along with the Derby winner's share of $854,800.
Smarty Jones ran his record to 7-for-7 and became the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977. Seattle Slew went on to win the Triple Crown, a feat Smarty Jones will attempt when he heads to the Preakness in two weeks.
''I don't think this horse has ever got the respect he was due,'' 77-year-old owner Roy Chapman said.
Probably because his story is a doozy.
Smarty is a Pennsylvania-bred who nearly died when he slammed his head on an iron bar; his trainer and jockey are based at a small-time park; his owners refused a blank check to sell him.
He doesn't have the regal bearing of a champion. He's smallish and has goofy bangs that brush the top of his eyes. But nothing has stopped him so far.
Even over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs the first in 10 years Smarty Jones raced just behind pace-setter Lion Heart. As the 18-horse field came off the final turn, the colt moved up to challenge for the lead. Under Elliott, Smarty Jones staged his patented stretch surge with an eighth of a mile to go and pulled away.
He won by 2 3/4 lengths over Lion Heart, with Imperialism, trained by 21-year-old Kristin Mulhall, third.
''At the three-eighths pole I was biding my time,'' Elliott said. ''I knew I had a loaded gun beneath me. He straightened up, switched leads and I figured it was time to go.
''When I had the chance, I took it. I was pretty confident when we passed Lion Heart,'' he said.
The winning time for the 1 1/4-mile Derby was a slow 2:04.06 over the fourth sloppy track in Derby history. Though it didn't rain during the race, there was a downpour two hours earlier that left the track a muddy mess and filled the infield with small lakes.
That his first Derby was raced over slop hardly mattered to winning trainer John Servis: ''That was a beautiful race. Picture perfect.''
Mike Smith, aboard Lion Heart, concurred: ''I had a great trip, but Smarty Jones just had another gear.''
Servis and Elliott, a pair of Philadelphia Park regulars, became the first trainer-jockey duo to win the Derby on their first try since favorite Spectacular Bid won in 1979 for trainer Bud Delp and jockey Rodney Franklin.
And even though the favorite won, until the gates opened, the race was considered a wide- open affair with at least a half dozen horses capable of winning, including Blue Grass Stakes winner The Cliff's Edge and Wood Memorial winner Imperialism.
In the stands, Chapman got out of his wheelchair and shouted, ''I can't believe it!'' and accepted hugs from Servis, friends and relatives. Chapman, hooked up to an oxygen tank because of his emphysema, then sat back down, taking deep breaths to calm himself, but smiling the whole time.
''We've never raced at this level,'' said Chapman, a retired auto dealer who got into the horse business in the mid 1980s. ''Never thought we would get here until we met Smarty. And this guy sitting next to me.'' He pointed to Servis.
Chapman and his wife, Pat, will now collect a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., because their horse swept the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby. With the huge payoff, Smarty Jones becomes racing's sixth richest horse with earnings of $6,733,155.
The 4-1 favorite paid $10.20, $6.20 and $4.80 in becoming just the fifth undefeated Derby winner. Lion Heart paid $8.20 and $5.80. Imperialism returned $6.20 to show. Limehouse was fourth, followed by The Cliff's Edge, Action This Day, Read the Footnotes, Birdstone, Tapit, Borrego, Song of the Sword, Master David, Pro Prado, Castledale, Friends Lake, Minister Eric and Pollard's Vision. Quintons Gold Rush did not finish.
The crowd, 140,054, was the smallest since 1994, when Go for Gin won over the last sloppy track.
Last year, Funny Cide became the first New York-bred to win the Derby. Smarty Jones becomes just the second Pennsylvania-bred Lil E. Tee in 1992 was the first. Funny Cide also had a first-time Derby trainer and owners, but any other similarities end there.
Indeed, any horse would be hard-pressed to come up with a made-for-TV story to match Smarty's. And it all started just months after he was born at the Chapmans' Someday Farm in Chester County, Pa., the lush countryside outside Philadelphia.
First, original trainer Bob Camac and his wife were murdered at their farm in New Jersey, and the Chapmans nearly got out of the business altogether. They sold off most of their stock and kept only two horses one was Smarty Jones. He was sent to Florida to be broken for racing, and when he returned last year he was sent to Servis, a friend of Camac's.
Last July, misfortune struck again.
While schooling in the starting gate at Philly Park, the colt suddenly reared up and slammed his head on an unpadded iron bar.
''Oh my God, this horse killed himself,'' Servis recalled thinking.
He fractured his skull, shattered orbital bones and nearly lost his left eye. He was nursed back to health at the New Jersey Equine Clinic. To this day, one can still see the dents in his head.
Smarty Jones finally made it to the races, and hasn't stopped running since. He broke his maiden on Nov. 9, winning by 7 3/4 lengths at Philly Park. He won by 15 lengths two weeks later and that's when Servis knew he had himself a Derby horse.
Then it was on to New York, where he won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct before Servis took him to Arkansas. Smarty Jones then won the Southwest Stakes and Rebel Stakes, but still hadn't earned any graded stakes money, something that was needed to make the Derby field.
A win in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby was crucial, and Smarty came through in the rain. He blew past Borrego and won by 1 1/2 lengths and it was on to Churchill Downs.
And now it's on to Baltimore.
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