Smarty Jones is the people's horse. He has an undefeated record, modest pedigree and a trainer, jockey and owners who are regular Joes.
His victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness sent the sport's often anemic TV ratings soaring. His workouts at tiny Philadelphia Park attracted about 5,000 people. And Smarty was the first horse on Sports Illustrated's cover in 21 years.
The small chestnut colt with the long bangs is giving the sport another high-profile boost a year after Funny Cide and ''Seabiscuit'' captivated fans.
''It's a joy for me to see people come out and flock around this horse like they do,'' said John Servis, Smarty Jones' trainer. ''It's great for the whole industry, and I hope it carries on.''
On June 5, horse racing's next ''Smarty Party'' may be triple the fun. The colt will try to win the Belmont Stakes and become the first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.
''People aren't coming to see a horse race they're coming to see a coronation,'' said Bill Nader, senior vice president of the New York Racing Association.
Smarty Jones' success has nonracing people talking excitedly about a sport that struggles to maintain its fan base beyond the Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup.
''It's reaching a lot of people that would have never got involved in the sport. If we could just get a handful that we didn't have before, it would help,'' said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who rode Lion Heart in losing efforts against Smarty Jones in the Derby and Preakness.
Nobody is counting on Smarty Jones to restore racing to its glory days of the 1930s and '40s, when thousands packed the grandstands from New York's Belmont Park to California's Santa Anita. Back then, a day at the races was a diversion from life's hardships.
Nowadays, movies, cable TV, video games and a vastly expanded sports calendar try to lure people already hard-pressed for spare time, leaving fewer opportunities for racing to attract new and younger fans. Gamblers no longer have to bet at the track they can wager on the Internet or at OTB.
Racing's best opportunities to make new fans are on big-event days such as the Triple Crown races and the Breeders' Cup, Nader said.
''What it does do is bring people into a sport that they knew nothing about. They recognize for the first time that thoroughbred racing is exciting, fun and it might be for them,'' he said.
''Somewhere beyond that date, they will come and experience for the first time what they see on television.''
But can the momentum generated by Smarty Jones extend beyond the Belmont Stakes?
''It might be too optimistic on our part to think that,'' said Nader, adding that having Smarty Jones race as a 4-year-old could carry the sport through next year.
Smarty Jones has generated interest in racing in the same way as the ''Seabiscuit'' book and movie and the failed Triple Crown bids of Funny Cide, and War Emblem in 2002.
Funny Cide won the Derby and Preakness for his owners, a group of high school buddies from upstate New York.
The gelding drew 103,222 people to the Belmont Stakes on a cold, rainy day, but he lost his bid to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner.
He is still racing but hasn't won much. However, co-owner Jack Knowlton sees Funny Cide's influence when he talks to people who have bought racehorses.
''They saw a little guy can win and they saw how much fun the partners and I were having,'' he said. ''That's what it takes. You get people involved in ownership, they'll come to the races and they'll bring their friends.''
Racing will gain greater TV exposure beginning June 12 when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association launches ''NTRA Super Saturdays'' on ABC and ESPN.
Five two-hour shows, featuring races from tracks nationwide, will air once a month from June to October to maintain the sport's profile between the Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cup on Oct. 30.
''That's what got baseball and basketball huge,'' jockey Smith said, referring to TV coverage.
About 17 million people watched Smarty Jones win the Kentucky Derby. NBC's ratings peaked during a 30-minute window when the race was run, giving the network a 27 percent increase from last year.
When Smarty Jones won the Preakness by a record 11 1/2 lengths, the race enjoyed its highest rating since 1990 and a 35 percent improvement over last year.
''The general public is behind him,'' Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said. ''Everybody loves the story of the little guys rising up. It's good for racing.''
Smarty Jones has turned his human connections into media magnets. Servis, jockey Stewart Elliott and elderly owners Pat and Roy Chapman, who has emphysema and uses a wheelchair, had low profiles before Smarty made it big.
The NYRA is expecting a record crowd for the Belmont. They're adding bleacher seats at the top of the stretch, along with reserved seating on the grandstand apron.
''Maybe this is the year. Maybe this is the horse,'' Lukas said. ''It is going to be a boost when it happens. People want to be there. They want to be a part of it when something special like this takes place.''
AP sports writer Chris Duncan in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this story.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.