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Region Has a Lot Riding on a Smarty Jones Win

Philadelphia, yearning for a champion, is counting on a Triple Crown victory.

June 03, 2004|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BENSALEM, Pa. — His bloodline is less than royal. His home track is hardly among the nation's elite. Several siblings died of a rare equine disease, and he once banged his head so hard on a starting gate that he fractured his skull. His first trainer was murdered. And his jockey once beat a man unconscious with a pool cue, a beer bottle and a stool.

Nothing special was expected of Smarty Jones, a smallish chestnut colt, when he was born in Pennsylvania's mushroom country three years ago. But since he began racing for cash last year, he has never lost. In fact, after taking the lead in his eight races, no horse has ever passed him.

On Saturday, in the elite horse country of Long Island, N.Y., the little thoroughbred from nowhere will attempt to become just the 12th horse to win racing's Triple Crown. Smarty Jones, who shocked the thoroughbred establishment by winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, is the heavy betting favorite for Saturday's Belmont Stakes. The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978.

There is more riding on Smarty Jones' sleek back than a mere horse race. He carries with him the hopes of a region located far from the equestrian aristocracy, as well as the fortunes of an industry struggling to hold its share of America's sports market.

Philadelphia, a city with a nagging inferiority complex and desperate for a winner, has embraced Smarty Jones. More than 8,000 people turned out to watch a recent dawn workout. The general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers took a Smarty Jones horseshoe to the NBA draft lottery, and the Philadelphia Flyers adopted the horse -- nicknamed the Philadelphia Flyer -- as a good luck charm.

Philadelphia has gone 21 years without a major sports championship. With the Flyers' recent Stanley Cup hockey playoff loss, the 76ers' miserable season, the Eagles' third straight loss just short of the Super Bowl and the Phillies' long World Series drought, the city is now counting on a horse to deliver.

The city's newspapers feature several Smarty Jones stories a day. Local newscasts provide regular updates on his training regimen and camp followers. On Tuesday, the big story was the three-state police escort for the colt as he made his way north to Belmont, trailed by fans.

Even Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has jumped on the Smarty Jones bandwagon, trying to parlay the horse's surging popularity into legislative approval for slot machines at the state's downtrodden racetracks. Like the 76ers and the Flyers, the governor has yet to prevail.

Thousands of schoolchildren from around the country have written to Smarty Jones, a reflection of a renewed interest in horse racing spurred in large part by the colt's unlikely ascent in the sport of kings. Fans who never before paid attention to horse racing are lining up for official Smarty Jones hats, T-shirts, key chains and glossy photos -- but, mercifully, no Smarty pants.

"It's really remarkable to think what this horse had to go through to get to where he is," said his trainer, John Servis, who has been inundated with requests for Smarty Jones' autograph (his horseshoe prints are for sale) and marriage proposals (for the horse, not the trainer).

There was no talk of a Triple Crown run when Smarty Jones was born in nearby Chester County in February 2001, on a farm that is now home to more alpacas than horses. His owner, Roy Chapman, a self-described "ham and egger" Philadelphia horseman who made a fortune selling cars, had to sell the farm because of health problems. Chapman, 78, has emphysema and watches Smarty Jones' races from a wheelchair equipped with an oxygen tube.

He had to find a new trainer after Robert Camac, who had recommended that Chapman breed the stallion and mare that produced Smarty Jones, was murdered by his own stepson nine months after Smarty was born.

Smarty Jones' sire, Elusive Quality, was a record-setting speed horse that never won a race longer than a mile. His dam, I'll Get Along, was a brood mare with speed and several stakes race wins but no history of running long races.

"All the gurus said he's never going to get past a mile -- he's not bred for it," said Servis, who replaced Camac as trainer. The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont are each more than a mile long; the Belmont, at a mile and a half, is the longest of the three.

"Smarty has outrun his pedigree," said Keith Jones, the announcer at Philadelphia Park, the humble racing oval just across the city line in working-class Bensalem. The colt holds the record for the longest combined winning margin in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. If Smarty Jones wins Saturday, he and Seattle Slew (1977) would be the only undefeated Triple Crown champions.

Typically, Jones said, thoroughbreds start fast and then gradually slow over the course of a race. Smarty Jones is the exception -- he actually maintains his speed for nearly an entire race, Jones said.

"He glides -- he's so smooth you almost don't hear him," he said.

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