Thursday, April 29, 2004

Hard times paved their Derby road


Unheralded crew has one of hottest picks, greatest tales

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Smarty Jones, No. 2 in the morning line for Saturday's Kentucky Derby, gets a post-workout bath at Churchill Downs Wednesday. The colt overcame a fractured skull to become a key contender in the field of 20 horses.
The Associated Press/ED REINKE

LOUISVILLE - As Sally Jenkins signs copies here this weekend of Funny Cide, her account of the blue-collar long shot who won the 2003 Kentucky Derby, she might witness a better book in the making.

Smarty Jones is the Derby's new darling, with a Seabiscuit-type saga: A group of unknowns endures heartbreak, rallies together and scripts a Hollywood ending.

Even trainer John Servis speaks in awe. "It's a great story," he said.

This Pennsylvania-bred - only one such horse, Lil E. Tee in 1992, has ever won the Derby - is hailed as an equine Rocky in his hometown of Philadelphia. He's simultaneously undefeated and unsung: At 9-2 in the morning line set Wednesday, he trails 4-1 top choice The Cliff's Edge.

Smarty Jones on Saturday stands to earn the largest single payday in racing history, make Stewart Elliott the first rookie rider to win since Ronnie Franklin aboard Spectacular Bid in 1979, and become the first undefeated Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.

And we haven't even addressed the drama.

"This story has got more twists and turns," Servis said, adopting the book analogy. "Every twist you read, you say, 'Oh my God, there's more to this?' "

COUNTDOWN
TO DERBY
Get Kentucky Derby 130 news and information at
courier-journal.com/derby
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It starts with the owners, Roy and Patricia Chapman, who entered the thoroughbred business in the 1980s and bought a 100-acre farm in Pennsylvania. They employed a trainer named Bob Camac, who arranged the breeding of Smarty Jones at their farm.

Ten months after the colt's birth, Camac and his wife were murdered by Camac's stepson. Devastated, the Chapmans sold their farm, breeding stock and all but four horses.

Servis' uncle, Jack Servis, knew the Chapmans and persuaded them to hire John, a regular at Philadelphia Park.

Servis had breezed Smarty Jones just once when he brought him to that track's starting gate for training last July. The horse reared and struck his head on an iron bar. He was unconscious a half-minute, blood pouring from his nostrils, and Servis thought the horse had died.

"I was thinking, 'Man, I don't want to make this phone call,' " he said.

He was fortunate. Though the horse suffered a broken eye socket and multiple hairline fractures, surgery wasn't required and the colt's vision was fine. He was released after three weeks in a clinic.

Smarty Jones didn't race until November, but he promptly won twice by a combined 23 lengths. Servis then chose what he admits was the easiest route here - three races at Oaklawn Park. With Roy Chapman, 77, sick with emphysema, Servis said he desperately wanted to give the owners their first Derby horse.

It might pay off in record fashion. Oaklawn is offering a $5 million bonus if a horse wins its Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and triumphs Saturday. Added to the winner's purse, that's $5.9 million.

The 45-year-old Servis, little known outside of the Philly-New Jersey circuit and also making his Derby debut, could have picked up a big-name jockey. Yet he said he never considered replacing Elliott, a 39-year-old journeyman who has been his hunting and fishing buddy.

Their inexperience is all that holds down the hype. As trainer Bobby Frankel quipped, "If Smarty Jones came here with (trainer Charlie) Whittingham and (jockey Bill) Shoemaker, he'd be the Second Coming."

Derby fever now grips Philadelphia Park, a second-tier track that has embraced this cast of characters.

"The David-and-Goliath nature of this story, that's part of what has the fans at our track so much behind Smarty," Philadelphia Park announcer Keith Jones said. "The excitement here is overwhelming."

Jack Servis died last spring, and John now ascribes a mystical quality to how his uncle united him with the Chapmans. Karma, John believes, might have brought them all to this unlikely perch.

"With Bobby and my uncle, I think back to them and how close they were," Servis said. "If you believe in heaven, I can see them two sitting up there with the Racing Form drinking their coffee, and every time I try to do something that's not right, they say, 'Stick to your game plan.' And it all works out."

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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