In the world of U.S. horseracing, there's no greater prize than the Triple Crown bestowed on horses that win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes races in one season. There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since 1978. But now, there's an unlikely contender for the throne: Smarty Jones. Next Saturday (6/5), the colt heads to the third and final race. Though a thoroughbred, Smarty Jones comes from more pedestrian stock, and that's made him an icon in his native Philadelphia area.
Four tractors clear the dirt track for Smarty Jones' private training session at Philadelphia Park. He used to train with the track's other thoroughbreds but, since winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, no one would think of letting him run him next to another horse that could trip him up.
Lots of things have changed at the modest Park in the past few weeks. Security's tighter, the rows of cinder-block stables and dorms are cleaner, and fans turn out in record numbers to watch Smarty Jones stretch his legs.
"Everybody's kinda excited about the whole deal, says Smarty Jones' jockey Stuart Elliot. "I think its bringing more people to the races and probably some people that weren't into horse racing before. Maybe now they are. He's like the super star for the area."
Elliot and the horse make a pair of unexpected stars. Elliot has seen his share of hard times. He's a recovering alcoholic who's been arrested for assault more than once, including after he allegedly put a man into a coma during a bar brawl.
Elliot's mount, Smarty Jones, has also pulled himself up by the horse-shoes. Smarty is the offspring of two sturdy but none too spectacular horses: "I'll Get Along" and "Elusive Quality." The idea to mate the two was horse trainer Bob Camac's.
Don Clifford, who worked for Camac, says "he [Camac] always had this uncanny ability to see a [promising] filly. And he liked to use cheaper stallions that were unknown, newer stallions that were just coming on the scene. I'll tell you, him and his wife Maryanne had something together that was unbelievable and uncanny. They just had the ability to find these special type of breeding circumstances that seemed to always do well for him."
Unfortunately, the Camacs didn't live to see the success of their work. They were murdered in 2001 by Maryanne's son after Bob caught him stealing checks from horse owners. But the Camacs left an incredible legacy in Smarty Jones. And now many people are reaping the benefits.
Back at Philadelphia Park, those behind the scenes are excited by the success of this young horse. Everyone who works at the Park stands to gain a great deal if Smarty Jones wins the Triple Crown. His fame is likely to attract more money to the Park and that could mean big raises for groomers like Tia Jones, who currently makes $250 a week plus a room in one of the track's concrete bungalows. "Always the backstretch workers are sort of ignored. Everybody knows Smarty Jones' jockey's name and his exercise rider['s name]. But no one knows the poor guy who actually rubs this horse and takes care of him from day to day. So remember us because we do the work," he says.
The excitement is spreading well beyond the racing community though, catching the attention of people who never even considered watching a horse race: guys like Travis Small, who previously looked on horse racing as an alternative sport. "That's, like, a non-contact sport. I like the physical sports, you know, basketball, football, you know, the regular major sports," he says.
Mr. Small is a busboy at Nick's Roast Beef, a sports bar in Philadelphia. His attitude about horse racing changed when Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby on May 1. "It was crazy. It was crazy because Smarty was coming around. He was, like, in third [place] and in the home stretch he just pulled it out," he says. "He was just, like, representing Philly [the city of Philadelphia}. It was a lot of spirit with him, you know. Everybody was riding with him, you know, so I had to root for the "home team."
Travis Small's not alone. He says the entire bar was cheering that day and the manager okeyed a round of free drinks. Two weeks later, when Smarty won the Preakness by 12 lengths, the usually half-empty bar was packed with cheering fans.
Philadelphia's City Council has even passed a resolution honoring the horse and calling for him to parade down Broad Street. It reads: "Smarty Jones exemplifies a typical Philadelphian with his passion and hard work." The only glitch is Smarty Jones isn't actually from Philadelphia. Philadelphia Park is in the nearby town of Bensalem, Pennsylvania.