A feel-good story that had damn near everything a Hollywood scriptwriter could want mesmerized sports fans in the spring of 2004 – murder, health issues, mammoth sums of money, unlikely heroes, and a budding star from humble beginnings. Even 20 years later, it sounds too far-fetched to believe.

In a sport that loves an underdog saga, Smarty Jones fit that bill but he was so much more than the classic overachiever. The plucky Pennsylvania-bred captured the hearts of a national audience in his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, and in Philadelphia he was the prodigy they’d been waiting for. Smarty Jones was a winner.

Smarty Jones, John Servis, Someday Farm, Stewart Elliott, Philadelphia Park, 2004 Kentucky Derby, 2004 Triple Crown, Bill Denver, EQUI-PHOTO
Smarty Jones nuzzles groom Mario Arriagas in 2004. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

“It was a huge deal. People that didn’t follow the sport were following Smarty Jones,” said Dick Jerardi, the longtime Philadelphia Daily Newshorse racing and college hoops writer who in 2004 was a weekend host at 610 WIP, at the time the only all-sports station in the city.

“Horse racing became a topic, not just with me but with the morning show and with other shows that were on the air at WIP at the time.”

Philadelphia had not won a major championship since the Moses Malone-led 76ers swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals. The beloved Eagles had just lost for the third straight year in the NFC championship game, the Eric Lindros-era Flyers and Allen Iverson’s Sixers never got over the hump, and the Phillies had not tasted a postseason since 1993. Philadelphia sports fans were famished, and Smarty’s blue-collar story had all the ingredients.

Smarty was the local horse, not a Kentucky blue blood. His owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, were well-known in the city for their Chapman Ford dealerships. Trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott were regional stars who had never sniffed the Kentucky Derby.

“I think I wrote at one point, ‘It was so far on the other side of the tracks that you couldn’t see the station,’ ” Jerardi said. “That’s kind of how people looked at Smarty Jones. I don’t want to say he was ‘Rocky’ but he was something akin to that because the town loves underdogs.”

Smarty was bred by the Chapmans’ Someday Farm in Pennsylvania out a mare named I’ll Get Along who was selected for the couple by their trainer Bob Camac.

Camac also chose the mating to Elusive Quality. The resulting foal was born Feb. 28, 2001, coincidentally the birthday of Pat Chapman’s mother, Milly “Smarty Jones” McNair.

Roy “Chappy” Chapman was not in good health, suffering from emphysema, and things really came crashing down around the couple when Camac and his wife, Maryann, were murdered in December 2001 by their stepson over money.

Time had come, it seemed, for the Chapmans to get out of the sport.

Elliott visits Smarty Jones at Philadelphia Park. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

The couple kept the promising chestnut colt born on their mother’s birthday on a recommendation from a farm manager. Of course, the Chapmans needed a trainer. Mark Reid, who had previously trained for the Chapmans, recommended one of his former assistants who was at the top of his game, John Servis.

Servis’ first horse for the Chapmans almost never made it to the races. After three weeks or so with Servis, Smarty Jones nearly lost an eye, suffering multiple fractures of the skull and a broken left orbital bone, in a schooling accident in the starting gate.

Veterinarian Patricia Hogan, who tended to Smarty at the New Jersey Equine Clinic in Clarksburg, N.J., said he looked so bad the staff nicknamed him “Quasimodo.” Nursed back to health over 12 days at the clinic then six weeks on a farm, Smarty Jones did finally make it to the races. Once he did, there was no slowing him down.

He won his first three starts, two at Philadelphia Park and one at Aqueduct in New York, by a combined 27 ¾ lengths under Elliott. To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Oaklawn Park offered a $5 million bonus, the largest ever by a track in America, to any horse who could sweep the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby in 2004. Servis had the Hot Springs, Ark., path to the Kentucky Derby pre-mapped out for Smarty Jones and, after winning the Southwest Stakes, Rebel, and Arkansas Derby, Smarty Jones headed to Louisville seeking to become the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977 with a massive bonus on the line.

“Smarty Jones gave 110% every time. He gave everything he had. He did not want to lose,” Elliott said. “The more he won, the better he got and the more he wanted it. He had that determination. John helped tremendously with that by having him undefeated.

“It’s like a boxer who keeps winning, I mean, he thinks he’s unbeatable.”

Rain or shine, nobody was beating Smarty Jones on Kentucky Derby day. After a monsoon-like storm soaked Churchill Downs, Smarty Jones skipped through the sloppy stretch to a $5 million bonus, a 2 ¾-length win over Lion Heart, and newfound fame that stretched beyond imagination.

“We drove to Kentucky for the Derby,” said Servis, who celebrated the Derby win with his wife and another couple with a pizza in the hotel lobby after forgetting to make a dinner reservation. “When we left [Monday] morning, we were just outside of Lexington on the interstate, and somebody was laying on the horn – I thought I had cut somebody off. I look over and there are two couples in the car, and one girl was hanging out of the car, screaming, ‘Smarty Jones! Smarty Jones!’ … That was pretty crazy.”

Smarty Jones, John Servis, Someday Farm, Stewart Elliott, Philadelphia Park, 2004 Kentucky Derby, 2004 Triple Crown, Bill Denver, EQUI-PHOTO
Fans watch Smarty Jones gallop May 8, 2004. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

Upon returning to Pennsylvania, the Servis family found their home decorated in the Chapman’s blue and white colors with ribbons and balloons all over the yard and much of their entire block. There was a billboard in Philadelphia congratulating Smarty Jones, and a huge media circus followed the connections back to Philadelphia Park. Heck, a reported 5,000 fans watched 10 deep from the rail as Smarty Jones went out with John Servis, wearing a Flyers Jersey, for morning exercise.

The media requests had increased so dramatically, that Servis’ wife, Sherry, stepped in and handled coordination of interviews and requests. Jerardi had advised Servis after the Arkansas Derby just to be himself, and that he was.

“He was incredibly available, very well-spoken, was a very good ambassador for the horse as were the Chapmans, John’s wife, Sherry, and Stewart Elliott,” Jerardi said. “The whole crew, it was like they had been through this many times before, but of course they had never been through it at all.”

A record 112,668 fans attended the Preakness Stakes as Smarty-mania engulfed the MidAtlantic region, and after one emphatic 11 1/2-length runaway victory in Baltimore, Smarty Jones fever spiked beyond what anyone could have anticipated.

Smarty Jones, John Servis, Someday Farm, Stewart Elliott, Philadelphia Park, 2004 Kentucky Derby, 2004 Triple Crown, Bill Denver, EQUI-PHOTO
Young fans hold a Smarty Jones sign at Philadelphia Park. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

For three weeks between the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, Smarty Jones graced newspaper and magazine covers across the country. He was the talk of the town in Philadelphia as the championship-starved city was fully ready to parade the unbeaten colt down Broad Street after a Belmont Stakes win – which, of course, had not been approved by John Servis or the Chapmans. The Flyers were in the midst of an Eastern Conference Finals run, but Smarty Jones was the topic du jour on sports talk radio.

“I don’t think they had a choice,” Servis said with a laugh. “People were interested and they wanted to talk about him. If WIP wanted the people to call in, I don’t think they had a whole lot of choice to be honest with you.”

Unfortunately, there was no storybook ending for Smarty Jones. He faced a ton of early pressure in the early stages of the Belmont Stakes. Though he looked like a winner entering the stretch of the 1 ½-mile Test of the Champion in front of a record crowd of 120,139, Marylou Whitney’s Birdstone surged past in the closing strides to spoil the Triple Crown bid by a length. Smarty Jones never raced again, retired in August 2004 with what was described as “chronic bruising of the bottom of the cannon bone” in his fetlock joints.

The Smarty party was a rollicking ride in the spring of 2004, both in Philadelphia and nationally, despite the lack of a storybook ending. Twenty years later, it’s still tough to explain just how deeply people connected with Smarty Jones, the Chapmans, John Servis and his team, and jockey Stewart Elliott.

Smarty Jones, John Servis, Someday Farm, Stewart Elliott, Philadelphia Park, 2004 Kentucky Derby, 2004 Triple Crown, Bill Denver, EQUI-PHOTO
Fans bid farewell to Smarty Jones at his retirement. (Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO)

“How often do you see a Philadelphia Park horse go on to the Kentucky Derby or the Triple Crown, never mind to go on and win those races?” Elliott reflected. “It was unbelievable, it really was, the following and the interest he had. It’s horse racing. I mean, a lot of people are horse racing fans, but he drew people that didn’t know anything about horse racing or never watched horse racing.”

The people who surrounded Smarty Jones welcomed fans into their lives for a few months that spring. That, no doubt, played a huge role in his popularity.

“Chappy wasn’t healthy and people saw that,” Servis said of Roy Chapman, who died in February 2006. “My wife and I went out of our way to tell the story and let everyone in. I felt like, as good as the business had been to me, we wanted to give something back and we just made the decision that we were going to be open to interviews, and tell the story, and hope they enjoy it.”

“They handled every bit of it right up to and including the Belmont Stakes,” Jerardi said. “I mean, there can’t be a more disappointing defeat and John went down to the winner’s circle to congratulate [Birdstone’s trainer] Nick Zito. Not many people would have done that, but he did and he never changed.”

Original Source Credited to americasbestracing.net

Cover Photo Credit to Bill Denver/EQUI-PHOTO

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.