It’s been 20 years since Smarty Jones started a magical run at the Kentucky Derby that came within 50 yards of winning the Triple Crown.

The striking chestnut colt, bred in Pennsylvania and owned by a Philadelphia car dealer, won his first two races at Philadelphia Park and carried his unbeaten streak into the 2004 Kentucky Derby — becoming the first undefeated horse to win since Seattle Slew in 1977.

Two week later at Pimlico, he dominated the field in the Preakness Stakes, setting the record for the largest margin of victory — 11-1/2 lengths — in race history. Hall-of-Fame track announcer Tom Durkin called it “a colossal margin.”

The hype and fervor surrounding Smarty Jones was high and only continued to grow for the three weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes.

And Philadelphia was starved for a winner.

More than 20 years had passed since the 76ers won the NBA Finals in 1983. This horse from Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing) in Bensalem, less than 20 miles from Philadelphia, took over the sports-obsessed region. Local sports radio hosts and callers were all talking about Smarty Jones and horse racing.

The blue-collar horse was a perfect fit for the blue-collar town. Smarty Jones battled through adversity before making it to his first race, including being knocked unconscious in a starting gate accident that fractured his skull.

Steve DiDomenico (front) and employees at Chapman Ford are excited about “their” horse, Smarty Jones . Heisey

The injury was severe enough that his trainer, John Servis, thought he may have died.

The people of Philadelphia gravitated to the story and to their underdog. The modest homebred for Someday Farm (Owners Roy and Pat Chapman’s stable name) resonated with horse racing fans and the public not previously exposed to horse racing.

“(Just) the incredible amount of fan mail we got from people that never watched a horse race before Smarty,” said Pat Chapman recently. “I know John Servis and Smarty Jones got a lot of mail, too. It was funny that the post office all of a sudden could deliver mail addressed to Smarty Jones. He got a lot of fan mail, some addressed to him, some addressed to the Chapmans and some addressed to Servis. We spent a lot of time answering fan mail.”

‘Valiant But Vanquished’

The final leg of the Triple Crown was June 5, 2004. There were dedicated “Smarty Parties” being held all over the region in anticipation of history.

The buildup to the race was palpable as horse racing was also dealing with a long Triple Crown drought — Affirmed being the last winner in 1978.

A record crowd of 120,139 showed up at Belmont Park to see history.

“It’s been 26 years, it’s just one furlong away,” Durkin said, as Smarty Jones led into the final of 12 furlongs.

But Smarty Jones couldn’t hold off Birdstone in the end and finished second.

“It is one of the greatest races in Triple Crown history,” Durkin said, recently. “Smarty Jones was valiant but vanquished.”

Smarty Jones in his retirement paddock. Photo courtesty of Rodney Eckenrode

The TV rating for the race was 15.6 with a share of 31, the highest since Seattle Slew in 1977 and a rating that hasn’t been topped since. Not surprisingly, the Philadelphia market led all markets with a 28.1 rating and 46 share, meaning 31% of the United States and 46% of Philadelphia households that were watching television were watching Smarty Jones.

Smarty Jones was expected to continue racing after his defeat in the Belmont, but the Chapmans decided it would be best to retire him to stud after he developed chronic bruising in the joints of all four ankles.

He earned more than $7.6 million on the racetrack and was valued at $39 million as sire.

Roy died after a long battle with emphysema in February 2006, shortly after the first Smarty Jones foals were born.

Smarty’s stud fee was set at $100,000, and there was heavy interest initially, but he did not produce at the level of other top stallions. His first year at stud produced 84 named foals; the highest mark of his career.

He stayed at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky at the beginning of his career but bounced around a bit, including trips to Uruguay for the Southern Hemisphere breeding season. He had several breeding seasons in Pennsylvania, but even with a drastically reduced stud fee as low as $4,000, there were limited mares lining up for the most popular horse in Pennsylvania history.

“The Pennsylvania breeders were not breeding to him, so I sent him back to Kentucky, for a couple of years, to Calumet Farm,” Pat said. “I was so thrilled that Brad Kelley, the owner, loved Smarty so much that he would take him in.”

He stood there for three years with a $7,500 stud fee, but again, overall interest was limited. He was still an enormous hit with visitors who wanted a glimpse of the horse who captivated America.

Home Sweet Home

Pat decided the horse should come home to Pennsylvania and started discussing options with Brian Sanfratello of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association. Sanfratello recommended that Pat meet with Rodney Eckenrode of Equistar Farm in Annville, Pennsylvania.

“We sat on a Sunday afternoon, and Rodney was very interested, but he just said so many right things,” Pat said. “I drove out his driveway that afternoon with Brian, and I said, ‘I think we found a home for Smarty.’”

Eckenrode made her feel comfortable, she said, even after she informed him how spoiled Smarty was.

“She wanted to know if he could have a double stall,” Eckenrode said. “Shoot, he can have four if you want him to.”

Eckenrode runs the operation with his wife, Sharon, where they also stand Grade 1 winner Brody’s Cause.

The stud fee is at $3,500 for Smarty Jones, and at 23, he is still an active stallion — a filly named Aiofe’s Magic, foaled in May 2021, began her career last September with four straight wins, including two stakes’ victories, while earning $289,120. Eckenrode said a full brother to Aiofe’s Magic was born at Equistar in April.

Smarty with Rodney Eckenrode of Equistar Farm in Annville, Pa., where Smarty spends his time these days. Photo by Kim Pratt

“Extremely blessed to be a part of his journey,” Eckenrode said. “It’s kind of amazing. We never dreamt we would have a horse like that here. He’s just a great horse. He’s super intelligent, and he’s got a ton of personality. He really is quite a character.”

Smarty Jones hasn’t had the success as a sire like he did on the racetrack, but the expectations were very high. There haven’t been many horses that have dominated a season like he did in 2004.

The horses he beat in the Triple Crown series went on to win multiple Grade 1 races as older horses, leaving many to wonder, if he stayed healthy, how much more greatness could Smarty Jones have provided his national fanbase.

The legacy of Smarty Jones on the track is not up for debate.

His 2004 season is one of the greatest in modern horse racing history. He totaled six wins at four different racetracks and on both fast and sloppy surfaces.

He also leaves behind another legacy that has benefited the horsemen and horsewomen of Pennsylvania.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell has credited Smarty Jones with helping Pennsylvania become one of the early adopters of casino gambling outside of Nevada, Atlantic City and Native American land. The bill for casinos in Pennsylvania became tied to the state’s racetracks and propping up the horse racing industry.

“I don’t think there is any doubt (Smarty Jones helped bring casinos to Pennsylvania),” Servis said. “After his races, I went to Harrisburg and spoke to the House and to the Senate. A lot of those guys in there don’t know the business and don’t know what it takes to get a horse to the races. Much less accomplishments like that (Smarty Jones Triple Crown season). I just kind of educated them, and I think they really appreciated it, and it helped tremendously.”

It has been 20 years, and it’s still just one furlong away, but Smarty Jones is still running strong.

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Cover Photo Credit to LNP file photo

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