NEW YORK It's a tale as remarkable as any soap opera: murder, a star who almost dies, bit players who become celebrities.
Only Smarty Jones can top all the drama with a Belmont Stakes victory Saturday for the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
And it'll be a madhouse at Belmont Park, where nearly all of an expected record crowd of 120,000 will be cheering for the Pennsylvania-bred colt to become the 12th horse to win racing's most coveted prize.
''It's time for the coronation of a new champion,'' Affirmed jockey Steve Cauthen says. ''It's what racing needs, what everyone is waiting for.''
Should Smarty Jones complete a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, he would join Seattle Slew as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winners. He'd also earn a $5 million bonus and become North America's richest racehorse with over $13 million in earnings.
''It's been an unbelievable journey,'' says Pat Chapman, who owns the little red chestnut colt with her husband, Roy.
The yarn features a former trainer slain in Jersey; Philly-based owners who sold their farm and all but two of their horses; Smarty slamming his head on a starting gate and nearly killing himself; and a trainer and jockey from Philadelphia Park, a small-time track rarely associated with high-quality racing.
Just four days before the Belmont, trainer John Servis is still trying to take it all in.
''I can't wait for the Belmont to be over to kick back and look what's happened,'' he said. ''It really hasn't sunk in yet. When it does, it'll probably hit like a sledgehammer.''
A look at how Team Smarty arrived at the threshold of greatness:
Smarty Jones was born Feb. 28, 2001, with trainer Bob Camac responsible for breeding the mare he had picked out, I'll Get Along, and the stallion, Elusive Quality.
Nine months later, Camac and his wife were murdered. His stepson was convicted and was sentenced to 29 years in jail. Devastated, and with Roy Chapman suffering from emphysema, the Chapmans were on their way out of the horse business. But they kept Smarty, who was training for the races at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla.
Farm manager George Isaacs told them: ''This might be the horse you're waiting for.''
Smarty arrived at Servis' barn at Philly Park last July 16. Twelve days later, disaster nearly struck. While working in the starting gate. Smarty reared up and smacked his head on a metal bar. He fractured his skull and nearly lost his left eye, but made a complete recovery.
His racing debut was Nov. 9, a bit late for most promising 2-year-olds but the colt cruised to victory by 7 3/4 lengths. After a 15-length romp in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes, Servis knew something special was happening. A win in the Count Fleet at Aqueduct, and Servis took his colt to Arkansas, where he taught Smarty to relax and turn on the speed only when asked by jockey Stewart Elliott.
Smarty Jones learned his lessons well, and won the Southwest, Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Although he was 6-for-6 going into the Kentucky Derby, he wasn't even the morning-line favorite. However, he had already won over racing fans and was the 4-1 top choice when he won by 2 3/4 lengths.
Two weeks later, it was a record-setting 11 1/2-length rout in the Preakness.
Smarty has yet to show signs of fatigue during the strenuous campaign, a problem that has tripped up several Triple Crown contenders, including Funny Cide, Silver Charm and Alysheba.
''I still haven't been able to get to the bottom of him,'' Servis said.
Roy ''Chappy'' Chapman met Pat in the mid 1970s, when she walked into his auto dealership in northeast Philly and left with a 1976 Granada. Six years later, the couple married. He had three children from a prior marriage; she had two.
Chappy loved fox hunting, so Pat learned to ride horses to keep up. Their interest in horses grew and they purchased a farm in 1988, calling it Someday Farm because Pat says: ''We talked about all the things we were going to do there some day. Some day we were going to do this, some day we were going to do that.''
They had no idea they'd ever get a shot at the big time. In 1989, they won the Maryland Hunt Cup Steeplechase with a gelding named Uncle Merlin. They hired Camac in the early 1990s, and gave him horses to run, mostly at Philadelphia Park.
In 1993, Camac recommended the purchase of the filly I'll Get Along at the Keeneland September yearling auction. The Chapmans bought her for $40,000. She won 12 races and earned $276,969 over five years.
By the time Smarty was born, Someday had been sold. Chappy's health had deteriorated and he was advised by doctors to take it easy. The Chapmans bought a home in New Hope, Pa., and they winter in Boca Grande, Fla.
Roy, who smoked three packs of Lucky Strikes for much of his life, now uses a wheelchair and needs an oxygen supply tank to help with his emphysema. After Smarty won the Derby, Chappy stood up and threw his arms into the air.
''I felt like I was having a heart attack,'' he said.
A week later, the Chapmans were at Philadelphia Park collecting a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park owner Charles Cella. Smarty earned it by winning the Rebel, the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby.
Perhaps no one is enjoying this party more than 78-year-old Roy. He says Smarty has energized him.
''Some day, somewhere, he's going to get beat,'' he said after the Preakness. ''We're trying to put that off as long as we can.''
Before Smarty came along, John Servis was best known for saddling Jostle to victories in the 2000 Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama.
At 45, he's racing's latest genius, a son of a jockey who took a most unusual path to get his horse to this point. Servis opted for the ''easiest route'' to the Derby through Arkansas, where he worked on building his colt's confidence while teaching him to harness his blazing speed.
He also made the decision to stick with Elliott rather than pick up a more experienced rider. ''Stew's my man,'' he said.
Servis' father, Joe, was a rider, jockey union leader and racing steward. So when John quit Shepherd College after a year, it came as no surprise.
''I got my first horse as a graduation present from high school,'' he said. ''I didn't have my trainer's license at the time, but I was training. I figured college was slowing me down.''
He's carved out a successful career, and is in no rush to leave if a better offer comes along. He and his wife, Sherry, and their two teenage children, live in Bensalem, Pa., about a mile from the track.
Born in Charles Town, W.Va., he's a Philly guy though and through. At news conferences, he'd often comment on the Flyers' NHL playoff fortunes. During one of Smarty's public gallops, Servis wore a Flyers' jersey.
He's enjoyed the spotlight and accommodated nearly every media request. He's amazed at the cards and letters he and the horse are receiving. ''It makes us feel good about what's going on,'' he said.
Stewart Elliott is the ultimate journeyman. His father was a jockey and a trainer, his mother an assistant trainer at Woodbine, and Elliott quit school after eighth grade to climb on a horse.
Born in Canada, he's won more than 3,200 races at dozens of tracks and now sits on the horse that has become the darling of racing and a cover boy at Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine.
''Unbelievable,'' Elliott says.
At 39, he also found fame has its drawbacks. After the Derby, his past was exposed: He battled alcohol in the 1990s; pleaded guilty to separate assault charges in 2001 one for beating a friend with a pool cue and wooden stool, another for beating up a girlfriend; and was fined a total of $1,525 by Kentucky, Maryland and New York racing officials for failing to disclose the guilty pleas on jockey license applications.
Team Smarty, though, stood behind him. Elliott and Servis have been friends for 20 years. They hunt and fish together, and Servis knew all about the past and told the Chapmans about it.
At first, Elliott was embarrassed. Now, there's relief it's out in the open.
''There's nothing to hide anymore,'' he said. ''Kind of like, I got it all out and over with.''
A leading rider at Philadelphia Park in recent years, Elliott has taken a step up: He's back at Monmouth Park this summer, and then he and his fiancee, Lauren Vannozzi, will take it from there.
''I have about five or six more years of riding left,'' Elliott said. ''Might as well try to make the best of it.''
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