Smarty’s party was a must-see 10 years ago

By: Wally Hall
Published: Friday, April 11, 2014
Smarty Jones with Stewart Elliott up leads the field to win the Preakness in Baltimore on Saturday, May 15, 2004. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)
Smarty Jones with Stewart Elliott up leads the field to win the Preakness in Baltimore on Saturday, May 15, 2004. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

HOT SPRINGS - It doesn’t seem like a decade since Smarty Jones captured the hearts of thoroughbred racing and sports fans from coast to coast.

Our man Robert Yates did a great job in Thursday’s newspaper of chronicling the work of Smarty Jones, but this column is subjective.

That horse became my favorite, too.

It wasn’t just his bloodline - which included Mr. Prospector, Secretariat, Count Fleet, War Admiral, Gallant Fox and Omaha - as much as it was his heart. He ran every race to win. He never had a bad day at the track or in training. Whatever it was, bloodline or heart, he never gave up.

He almost killed himself in a training gate accident and took six months for a head wound to heal, and some thought he would never race. He fooled them all.

John Servis became his trainer in 2003, and after winning the Count Fleet in New York, he pointed Smarty Jones toward Oaklawn and the Arkansas Derby.

A couple of months earlier Charles Cella, president and owner of Oaklawn, had announced a $5 million bonus, as a celebration of 100 years of racing at Oaklawn, for any horse who could win the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby and then go to Louisville and win the Kentucky Derby.

It seemed like a safe bet at the time.

It also seemed like Cella was making a statement, that horse racing would always be the primary reason Oaklawn Park exists.

Smarty Jones’ legend began after he improved his record to 5-0, winning the Southwest Stakes and the Rebel Stakes, when he covered the 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.07. When the racing experts broke down the numbers, they declared him the best 3-year-old in the world.

His final fractions were mind-boggling, and while his Arkansas Derby victory was impressive, it gave the bluebloods of Kentucky - Smarty Jones is a Pennsylvania-bred colt - some hope that he would not get the mile and a quarter.

Smarty Jones went off as the 4-1 favorite, and Cella left no doubt he wanted to write the big check.

Yours truly stood with Cella and his family during the race, and when Smarty Jones pulled ahead, Cella was pumping his fist and yelling so hard that his daughter Harriett reached out and grabbed his arm.

Smarty Jones is one of seven Kentucky Derby winners to emerge from the race with an undefeated record.

Nine days later, Cella presented Roy and Patricia Chapman with the $5 million check, which made it the largest payoff in American thoroughbred-racing history.

On May 15, a crowd of 124,351 made their way to Pimlico and watched Smarty Jones win by 11½ lengths in the Preakness Stakes. Suddenly the thoroughbred industry was getting positive attention, and every breath uttered about Smarty Jones seemed to include Oaklawn Park.

More than 120,000 crammed into Belmont Park three weeks later and 21 million tuned in on television to watch the Belmont Stakes with hopes of seeing a Triple Crown winner, which hadn’t happened since Affirmed outdueled Alydar in 1978. It was so crowded at the track that women were even using the men’s room because the lines were so long.

Little-known jockey Stewart Elliott, Smarty Jones’ regular rider, took his mount to the lead midway down the backstretch with a half-mile to go, but it was as if Jerry Bailey on Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, ridden by Alex Solis, wanted anyone but Elliott and Smarty Jones to win. They took turns pressuring Smarty Jones. First it was Eddington on the backstretch,then when he faded Rock Hard Ten went at Smarty Jones on the far turn. They didn’t hit the board, but they made sure Smarty Jones never relaxed.

Smarty had the lead with 100 yards to go, but Charles Cella’s sons - John and Louis - said “oh, no” simultaneously. They had spotted Birdstone flying down the middle of the track. He passed Smarty, costing the racing world a much-needed Triple Crown winner and costing Smarty a $5 million Visa bonus.

People ran out of Belmont Park. Many were crying, and even your trusty scribe had tears in his eyes.

Sports, Pages 19 on 04/11/2014