Preakness Memories: Smarty Jones and the almost Triple
Charismatic wins the Preakness. Photo by Jim McCue, Maryland Jockey Club.
From modest beginnings to record-setting romps, Smarty Jones blazed a bright, if all too brief, trail across the racing universe.
On February 28, 2001 a little chestnut foal came into the world in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The colt was by Elusive Quality and out of the Smile mare I’ll Get Along. Nobody could have predicted it at the time, but in just a few short years that tiny colt was going to rewrite racing history for his state of Pennsylvania and take the racing world by storm. He was a homebred for Roy and Patricia Chapman’s Someday Farm.
From the get-go, it was a breeding rife with special meaning. The Chapmans had purchased I’ll Get Along on the advice of their longtime trainer, Bob Camac, who also had recommended the mating that produced Smarty Jones.
Camac and his wife died in December of 2001, shot to death by his wife’s son from a previous marriage. Following his death, the Chapmans sold most of their horses — but not Smarty Jones.
Smarty Jones was trained by John Servis and was piloted by jockey, Stewart Elliott. The colt began his training at the age of two, but had a slight delay making it to the races due to a freak accident in the starting gate.
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Servis had Smarty Jones schooling inside the starting gate one morning when out of nowhere the colt spooked. Rearing up in a panic, Smarty Jones slammed his head into the top of the gate and fell to the ground with such force that his trainer thought he had died. Smarty Jones’s head was bloody and swollen to the point that veterinarians feared he would lose his left eye. Fortunately for Smarty Jones, he got to keep his eye but was diagnosed with a fractured skull that kept him out of training for several weeks.
Smarty Jones made a complete recovery from his injuries and bounced back to compete in his first race before his two-year-old season was over. The colt made his debut at Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing) and cruised to effortless victory. His 7 ¾-length romp gave his connections the confidence to run him back two weeks later, this time in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes. Smarty Jones roared to an astonishing 15-length victory, demolishing the field with authority. It was a mere preview to what was to come.
Smarty Jones returned to action in the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct. His seasonal debut began right where he left off: in the winner’s circle. The Pennsylvania-bred then ventured to Arkansas, adding the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes, and Arkansas Derby (G2) to his spotless resume.
Untouched in in six races from six career starts, Smarty Jones targeted a greater prize after his rousing performances in Arkansas. The undefeated colt splashed his way over the finish line in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby, becoming the first undefeated horse to wear the roses since Seattle Slew in 1977. From humble beginnings to an embarrassment of riches, Smarty Jones appeared to have the whole world watching with anticipation as he made his way to Maryland for the Preakness Stakes.
A record crowd of 112, 668 flocked to Pimlico Racecourse on May 15, 2004. Fueled by the noise of the crowd, the field erupted from the starting gate and took flight in what was about to become a historical Preakness run.
The race unfolded almost exactly as the Derby had. Lion Heart, who had finished second in Kentucky, rolled up to take the early lead with Smarty Jones stalking him throughout the race. In an attempt to make things difficult for the Derby winner, Mike Smith on Lion Heart had his horse travel wide in the hopes of causing Smarty Jones to lose ground. However, their efforts proved futile, as Smarty Jones overcame the obstacle with striking ease.
A gap opened up on the rail as the final turn loomed ahead. Seizing the opportunity, jockey Stewart Elliott urged Smarty Jones through the gap — and suddenly to a widening lead. The rest of the field didn’t stand a chance as Smarty Jones triumphantly flew toward the wire to announcer Tom Durkin’s astonished cry, “He’s going to win by a colossal margin!”
The crowd went wild as Smarty Jones romped to glory by a record 11 ½ lengths, besting the previous record set by Survivor, who won the inaugural running of the Preakness Stakes by 10 lengths back in 1873. Smarty Jones had come through for his fans, and he had a date with history.
“I got goosebumps,” trainer John Servis said afterwards. “I was concerned about him coming back in two weeks, but he had no works, and I think it was a good move.”
Gary Stevens, who rode runner-up Rock Hard Ten, certainly agreed.
“That horse is as good as any horse I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some good ones and I’ve been on some good ones, and I was on a good one today,” Stevens remarked. “Smarty really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away.”
A record crowd of over 120,000 gathered at Belmont Park three weeks after the Preakness, hoping — and expecting — to witness history.
After fending off multiple challenges on the Belmont backstretch, Smarty Jones stormed into the stretch of the Belmont Stakes, leading the race by over three lengths with a quarter-mile to go.
But there was Birdstone, a Grade 1 winner at two but largely ignored at three, mounting a rally. The vast crowd tried to will Smarty Jones to the wire.
At odds of 36-1, Birdstone shot past Smarty Jones in the final stages of the race to win by a length. The entire crowd spiraled instantly into deafening silence. Losing tote tickets fluttered down from the third level of the grandstand, a kind of anti-ticker tape parade.
For the first time in his life, Smarty Jones had been defeated. He went down in defeat with dignity but had left the coveted Triple Crown untouched for the 26th year in a row, losing the $5 million Visa bonus that would have come with it.
Smarty Jones never raced again after his Triple Crown attempt, retired due to bruising in his ankles. He retired with 8 wins from 9 starts, and earnings of $7,613,155. Smarty Jones was honored as the Champion Three-Year-Old Male of 2004.
Smarty Jones was sent to Three Chimneys Farm in Midway, Kentucky, taking up residence in the same stall in which 1977 Triple Crown hero Seattle Slew once lived in. Smarty Jones was moved around to a couple different farms over the years but has now returned to his home state of Pennsylvania, standing as a stallion at Equistar Farm.
Smarty Jones’s near-miss bid for the Triple Crown is widely credited with having played a significant role in helping racing advocates achieve passage of legislation which allowed slot machines in Pennsylvania — and bolstered racing purses and breeding incentives.
Roy Chapman passed away in 2006.
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