Sunday, May 2, 2004
For Elliott, it's just a race - but a big one
The winning jockey
By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LOUISVILLE - Stewart Elliott has an excuse if he is not media savvy or does not always give a clever answer.
He's never been here before.
The 39-old jockey from Philadelphia rode Smarty Jones to a victory in the 130th Kentucky Derby Saturday. Elliott became the first jockey to win the Derby in his first try since Ronnie Franklin rode Spectacular Bid in 1979.
"Unbelievable," Elliott called it. "I can't explain it."
He might not be a prolific public speaker, but Elliott's feel-good story could capture the heart of America's horse racing fans as Smarty Jones attempts to win the second and third legs of the Triple Crown in the next five weeks.
Elliott was 16 when he dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a jockey. Within a few years, he ballooned to 135 pounds, far too heavy for American jockeys, and by the mid-1980s he had to take a year-and-a-half break from horse racing. He continued to gallop horses, but every day was miserable because he couldn't control his weight.
"What do I do?" he said. "I don't know nothing else. I gave up education for this. After taking some time off, I dedicated myself more. I knew that I wanted it back. I disciplined myself at staying light."
He regained his jock mounts and has been riding regularly at Philadelphia Park, Smarty Jones' home track. Elliott was the track's top jockey in 2001, but he never had so much as a sniff at riding in the Kentucky Derby until this year.
He recalled the first time he took notice of the Derby, in 1978 as a 14-year-old when Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen defeated Alydar and went on to win the Triple Crown. No horse has won the Triple Crown series - the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont - since Affirmed.
"Last year I watched it at home," Elliott said of Funny Cide's Derby win. "Sure, I dreamed about it, but it's just a dream."
Smarty Jones' owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, gave Elliott's dream life by keeping him aboard the horse for Saturday's race. Elliott is the only jockey who has ridden Smarty Jones in seven career races, all wins.
"I'm so happy for Mr. and Mrs. Chapman and (trainer) John Servis for sticking with me and giving me this chance," Elliott said. "It's a great thing, you know. They could have rode anybody in the world, and they gave me this opportunity to prove myself."
Jockeys who are pushing 40 usually don't have to "prove" themselves, but Elliott isn't the typical Derby rookie. He was asked why he did not panic when runner-up Lion Heart maintained a 1 1/2-length lead more than halfway through the 1 1/4-mile race. Elliott coolly brought Smarty Jones back to even with a quarter-mile left and pushed the horse to a 2 3/4-length victory.
"I've been doing this a long time," Elliott said. "A horse race is a horse race. Yes, it's the Kentucky Derby, but a horse race is a horse race."
130th KENTUCKY DERBY
wins with sentimental journey
Elliott, it's just a race - but a big one
Jones draws a crowd at home track
sees good things in the future
special place in their hearts
make for a contrasting infield
ads raise no fuss
gallery: The race
Photo gallery: The scene
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