One of horse racing’s most beloved modern stars is back in the news this week. 2004 dual classic winner Smarty Jones is leaving his native Pennsylvania to stand at Kentucky’s Calumet Farm, one of the world’s most iconic slices of thoroughbred real estate. Smarty Jones will be the 9th Kentucky Derby winner, and 9th Preakness winner to stand at Calumet.
Back in 2004, 11 years before American Pharoah stormed into the mainstream, the world poured their collective Triple Crown hopes on a plucky Pennsylvania bred colt named Smarty Jones. This was nothing unusual of course; fans are always quick to pile onto the bandwagon of that year’s Kentucky Derby winner, thirsty for a taste of that Triple Crown thrill ride. The Smarty Jones hysteria however, was extraordinary. People absolutely loved this horse.
Just one year before, fans flocked to the New York bred gelding Funny Cide, but Smarty Jones was perhaps the most popular Triple Crown contender in years.
It was his name itself—Smarty Jones. It just rings happy.
It was his incredible speed and will to win. He was the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.
It was his relatively humble connections.
It was that sweet, sweet face.
What many people may not know, or perhaps have since forgotten, is darkness with which this lovable phenom’s life began.
Smarty Jones was born on the last day in February in 2001 at Fairthorne Farm in Chester County, PA. He was bred by a pair of locals, Pat and Roy Chapman. One year earlier, the Chapmans bred to their multiple stakes winning mare, I’ll Get Along, to a promising young stallion named Elusive Quality on the advice of their longtime friend and trainer, Robert Camac.
From the get-go, the young colt displayed a precocious, strong-willed nature. Pam Chapman named him Smarty Jones, the nickname of her similarly headstrong mother. The Chapmans and Camac were fairly optimistic about this chestnut colt’s future.
Camac was more than an industry adviser to the Chapmans, he was a trusted friend. Though far from a well heeled celebrity, Camac was a familiar face on the Mid-Atlantic racing circuit. He’d saddled over 1,800 winners in his nearly 40 year career at the track, and had a knack for finding value.
Camac, however, would never see Smarty Jones race. Just a few months after the birth of Smarty Jones, Camac would was murdered in his own home.
A worker at Camac’s Salem County, NJ farm made the gruesome discovery on the morning of December 6, 2001. Camac and his wife, Maryann, were sprawled out on the deck of their home, lifeless and in pools of their own blood. They had been shot multiple times.
Just a couple of days later police arrested and charged Maryann Camac’s son from a previously marriage, Wade Russell, with the murders. (Russell pled guilty to aggravated manslaughter in 2004 and is currently serving a 28 year sentence. Authorities believe the incident occurred after Camac confronted Russell about cashing stolen checks.)
The crime rocked the local community and devastated the Chapmans. With their trusted industry adviser now gone, they decided to shut down their thoroughbred operation. At 77 and suffering from emphysema, Roy Chapman had been planning to scale back any way, but this incident expedited the process. They sold their Pennsylvania farm and all of their horses. Well, nearly all of them. One of the two horses they kept was the sprightly foal Camac had orchestrated himself, Smarty Jones.
In the summer of 2003, Smarty Jones had developed into a striking young colt. After learning the ropes in Florida, the Chapmans sent him to the barn of Pennsylvania-based trainer John Servis, himself a long time friend of Camac.
Like Camac, Servis had seen plenty of success locally, but was relatively unknown on the national scene. Servis slowly put his new charge to work from his base at Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing) and immediately knew he had something special. Rambunctious and fast, Smarty Jones was poised to make his debut that summer, but there would be one more significant hurdle to clear.
What was supposed to be a routine gate-schooling session early one July morning in 2003, ended in near disaster. Smarty Jones reared up, banging his head on the starting gate, knocking himself out cold as blood pooled from his head.
Servis feared the worst. Smarty was alive, but the damage was severe: a fractured skull, a broken orbital socket and nasal passages. In an instant, the promising career of Smarty Jones looked be over before it started. Yet, after three weeks in the hospital and a month on the farm, Smarty Jones had made a complete recovery.
He returned to training and never missed a beat. He made his debut in November on his home dirt at Philadelphia Park. Servis tabbed a journeyman jockey named Stewart Elliott for the ride. Like Servis, Elliott was a mainstay on the local scene but had yet to breakthrough nationally.
With one scintillating workout after another, the word was out on Smarty Jones, and he was the betting favorite to score in his debut. The colt did not disappoint, grabbing the lead just after the quarter pole and drawing away to win by 7 easy lengths. Smarty Jones was indeed something special.
Two weeks later, Servis wheeled Smarty right back at Philadelphia Park for the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes. It would be a considerable step-up from his maiden score, facing the area’s top juveniles, but Servis knew if he ran like he did in his debut there wasn’t a horse around who could get in his way. Indeed, Smarty Jones and Elliott took command early, and again, won for fun, pulling away to win by 15 lengths. Elliott didn’t even have to move.
Servis told the Chapmans what he believed all along: they had a serious Kentucky Derby contender on their hands.
The road to the Triple Crown kicked off in earnest the following January at Aqueduct where Smarty Jones made his 3-year-old debut in the Count Fleet Stakes. Going a mile on the dirt, Smarty Jones dismantled his foes as Elliott sat on autopilot.
Smarty then shipped to Arkansas to prep for the Kentucky Derby at Oaklawn Park. While his speed was unquestioned, some doubted whether he had the stamina required for the classic distances of the Triple Crown. His sire, Elusive Quality, was a stakes winning miler, and his dam was an accomplished sprinter. First up was the Southwest Stakes. By now, Servis could have landed just about any jockey he wanted to ride his freakish colt, but he wasn’t one to mess with success, and so Elliott made the trip south. Once again, Smarty was just too good.
In March, Smarty Jones was entered into the Rebel Stakes. At a mile and 1/16, it would be his longest test yet, and his first attempt at two turns. The bettors were still a bit skeptical of this Philly flash with the small time connections, and he was made the second choice behind a superiorly bred colt named Purge, who hailed from the big-box barn of Todd Pletcher.
As Purge set the pace, Elliott kept Smarty Jones stalking right behind, and by the 3/4 pole, the colt kicked into another gear and drew off for another resounding win, squashing any lingering doubt about his stamina. He was now 5 for 5 and poised for prime time.
His next act was a dance with many of the country’s top 3-year-olds in the Grade II Arkansas Derby. A strong effort in this key April prep would assure him a spot in the Kentucky Derby. At a mile and 1/8, it was yet another opportunity to prove his pedigree doubters wrong, and away he went, crushing his helpless rivals with familiar aplomb.
Smarty Jones came to Churchill Downs that May a winner in all 6 career starts. He was fast, powerful and professional. He was squarely the horse to beat in the 2004 Kentucky Derby, although history was against him. Not since Seattle Slew in ’77 had an undefeated horse won the Derby. Then there was the rain. A pre-Derby deluge had relegated the track to a giant bowl of speed neutralizing mud soup. Then there was his team of Derby rookies, trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott. How would they handle the spectacle?
Well, they just let their superstar do his thing.
Smarty Jones was now 7 for 7, just the second Pennsylvania bred to win the Derby and had the look of a colt who was getting better. How much better? We’d find out two weeks later at the Preakness where the colt delivered one of the great performances of the modern era.
Smarty Jones’s 15 length Preakness romp remains the widest margin of victory in the race’s history. It was an all out ‘Smarty Party’. This was the horse to finally break the Triple Crown spell.
He was the horse from humble Pennsylvania beginnings with the journeyman jockey, modest trainer and the elderly owners still reeling from the grisly murder of their friend and breeder. This was the horse who nearly died in the starting gate the year before, rapidly recovered and seemingly knew exactly what he needed to do and loved doing it.
Sure, we had been here many times before. Sure, the Belmont Stakes was no easy task, but Smarty Jones was up for it. Who could stop him? This horse could not lose.
More than 120,000 people crammed into Belmont that day, still the largest crowd for a sporting event in New York. They came for Smarty. They came for history.
And then, we got Birdstone’d.
Birdstone. That bastard. How dare he?
Thank goodness social media was still in its infancy, for the public vitriol for the Smarty Party police would have been especially nasty. We’re talkin’ Tonalist, times 10. There was plenty of criticism being bandied around, mostly towards jockey Stewart Elliott, who himself admitted he may have moved the colt too soon in his first ever race at such a distance. A better argument can be made that Smarty Jones simply ran out of gas at the top of the stretch and was caught by a nice horse with a stamina heavy pedigree.
After the Belmont, Smarty Jones was given some much deserved down time. His return to training was interrupted by persistent ankle bruises, and rather than risk his long-term heath, the Chapmans retired their superstar homebred. Smarty Jones entered stud duty at Kentucky’s Three Chimneys Farm, where his first year stud fee was a whopping $100,000.
Ultimately, like so many great champions, Smarty Jones the stallion failed live up to Smarty Jones the runner. His fee shrunk each year, and eventually he returned to Pennsylvania to much fanfare where the Chapmans still maintained part ownership in their homebred hero. His fee had been reduced to $7,500, but he was still Smarty Jones.
In 2006, Roy Chapman lost his battle with emphysema. Smarty Jones’s progeny continued to have moderate success and, at least locally, his star never lost its luster.
At Calumet Farm, Smarty Jones will hopefully enjoy many more years of good health. He will certainly receive the best care a horse can have and will “meet” his share of quality mares. It’s a fitting new chapter for this racing icon as he will occupy the same stalls and fields of some of the sport’s all time greats in the heart of thoroughbred country. Just a few miles from Calumet lives another popular retiree, American Pharoah, who will forever be remembered for the 2015 Triple Crown; and though he came up a few feet short of the throne in 2004, we will never forget the fun we had at the Smarty Party.