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Horse racing

Smarty Jones saga holds fairy-tale flavor

Spirited colt staves off a sale, survives serious injury to enter the Derby undefeated.

Published April 30, 2004

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Patricia Chapman understands the absurdity of it all. This one's laid on too thick. It's the horse story that goes a twist too far. She'd never have bought this one, were she not living it.

Standing under the shade of an oak tree outside a barn at Churchill Downs, her hands resting softly on the shoulder of her husband as he sat in his wheelchair, Chapman is at the eye in the swirl that is the Smarty Jones phenomenon. Well-wishers rolled through in waves. Everyone was their friend. Everyone loved the tale too tall for truth.

"It seems like a bit of a stretch, doesn't it?" she smiled, tapping her husband, Roy, on the shoulder. "If I didn't know better I don't think I'd believe it."

Roy, a Philadelphia area car dealer, and Patricia, a former social worker, never imagined how twisted their route to the Derby would be when they bought the 100-acre Someday Farm in Chester County, Pa., in 1980. Though they enjoyed success with their homebred stock at Philadelphia Park, and in steeplechase company, Pennsylvanians rarely dare dream of the first Saturday in May.

But Saturday, because of a plucky undefeated colt too valuable to sell and too tough to kill, the Chapmans, successful but little-known trainer John Servis and lesser-known jockey Stewart Elliott will dream big.

"Up until a couple of weeks ago it was a pretty quiet life," Patricia Chapman said.

* * *

Bobby Camac, their longtime trainer and friend, set in motion a chain of events in 1993 that would change their lives when he convinced them to buy a mare named I'll Get Along for $40,000 at a Keeneland September sale. She won 12 races and $276,969 before the Chapmans decided to breed her, and Camac made another shrewd decision in securing the services of Elusive Quality as a breeding partner. The result was Smarty Jones.

* * *

Mildred McNair would have loved all this, Patricia Chapman said. Raised in Alabama by her grandparents, whose last name was Jones, Mildred McNair was "a bit of a handful," Patricia Chapman said, and burned off her excess energy painting and sassing her folks. Her grandparents nicknamed her "Smarty Jones." Years later she gave birth to a daughter named Patricia.

When I'll Get Along gave birth to a wobbly foal Feb. 28, 2001, Mildred McNair's birthday, the Chapmans had a ready name. Smarty Jones it was.

"I think she would like all this fuss," Patricia Chapman smiled.

If only Camac were here to see this, too.

* * *

Camac, 61, was sitting with his wife on the porch of their farmhouse in Pedricktown, N.J., in December 2001 when they were shot to death by his wife's son in an argument over money. Wade Russell pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter this year and is serving a 28-year sentence.

The tight-knit Philadelphia Park community was stunned. The Chapmans were among them. So was a trainer named John Servis they didn't really yet know.

Roy Chapman's worsening emphysema had been pushing the Chapmans to reduce their stock and they were so heartbroken they began doing so in haste. They sold Someday Farm, and were about to sell off Smarty Jones until George Isaacs, who breaks their horses in Ocala, suggested they hold on to this one. They eventually kept four.

Reliving the story again and again keeps his memory fresh.

"We've never taken him out of our phone book," Roy Chapman said.

"Bob is here," Patricia Chapman added.

* * *

Servis was born the son of a jockey in Charles Town, W.Va., and began his career at 14 working on a West Virginia breeding farm, but 14 years working at Philadelphia Park and Monmouth have made him a Philly guy. He drinks "wooter" and roots for the Flyers and was working as an assistant trainer at Monmouth when he unwittingly pulled the final two pieces of the Smarty Jones puzzle toward each other in a track baseball league game in 1980.

"Compound fracture," said Servis, 45. "Tibia, fibula, cast from the hip down for six months. Not pretty."

An agent friend asked Servis to take over his jockey book for a while, and that summer a newcomer named Stewart Elliott beat out one of Servis' clients for the riding title at Atlantic City.

Friend and fellow trainer Mark Reid helped Servis get back into the training business as an assistant, and he started his own stable in 1984. In 2002, Reid introduced Servis to the Chapmans.

Camac often had spoken highly of Servis. The Chapmans had met him at parties and knew his reputation, and with Reid's recommendation, they put Smarty Jones in his barn.

Servis immediately put Elliott on Smarty Jones for all six of his races, all wins. Now they have the chance to be the first undefeated horse to win the Derby since Seattle Slew in 1977. Oh, and wins in the Rebel Stakes and Grade II Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn qualify him for a $5-million bonus if he can win the Kentucky Derby.

* * *

The dream almost died before it started, in a starting gate at Philadelphia Park one horrifying day in July. Servis' assistants were schooling the 2-year-old when Smarty Jones reared up, striking an iron bar, smashing the orbital bone in his left eye and fracturing his skull. It looked much worse.

"Picture him standing in the gate, he hits his head, he's laying in the stall with his head, all four of his legs were buckled underneath him like he was going to lay down, and his head was actually underneath him in between his legs," Servis said. "He was out cold. And I'm like, "Oh, my God, this horse killed himself.' "

But Smarty Jones was released from a New Jersey equine hospital after about three weeks and spent more than a month on a farm before being eased into training.

"I call him my blue-collar horse," Roy Chapman smiled.

Call him unbelievable.

[Last modified April 30, 2004, 01:05:39]

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