You had to see it to believe it. Smarty Jones' open-house gallop at Philadelphia Park Saturday morning drew between 8,500 and 10,000 fans, some of whom showed up as early as 5 a.m. Once the doors opened just before 8, it was a mad dash to secure choice spots along the rail.
Soon, the rows of fans, lined nine and 10 deep, stretched all the way to the quarter pole. Traffic on Street Road was backed up for miles in both directions starting around 7:20. By then, the lines outside the doors had reached all the way to the parking lot, some 200 yards away.
Fans of all ages proudly displayed their Smarty Jones hats and T-shirts, and held up their homemade signs. By 8:15, so many people had poured into the track, they had to open the second floor of the grandstand, which filled up in a matter a minutes. Only one merchandising table was set up, and there were hundreds of people gathered around, trying to purchase their Smarty Jones souvenirs. This morning was the height of Smarty Jones fever, and it was as if all of the Philadelphia area was afflicted.
At about 8:40 Smarty finally made his long-awaited appearance. Trainer John Servis received a rousing ovation as he galloped to the sixteenth pole on the pony Butterscotch. A request was made by announcer Pat Cummings to keep the cheers for Smarty at a reasonable pitch as he galloped by, and the crowd heeded his words. While the ovation was loud it was restrained in respect for the horse.
Smarty galloped strongly, but not with his usual two-minute lick engines firing at full blast. This time, exercise rider, Pete Van Trump, instead of standing straight up in the irons and his feet in the dashboard, was crouched lower and had more control of the horse. Servis said afterwards he was thrilled with the way the colt relaxed, and how professional he has become.
"He was awesome today," he said. "Today, he relaxed so well. I was a little concerned with all the people, but he was so good. Every day he impresses me more and more. He's so professional, and that's what's making him the horse he is. He's just learning how to relax, and I'm just going to watch him day to day and play it one day at a time. I'm thinking of working him sometime toward the end of next week.
"For me, right now, my horse came out of the (Preakness) so good, my two biggest concerns are to keep him from hurting himself, number one, and I don't want him too sharp going into the race, number two. It's a mile and-a-half race and I don't want him to get rank early on. I want him to be able to do what he's done the last couple of races, and settle and be comfortable."
As for the number of fans who turned out, Servis said, "It's a joy to me to see this many people come out and flock around this horse the way they do. It's great for the whole industry and I just hope it continues to roll. It's a great story, and it seems to be snowballing. It seems like more and people are falling in love with the horse, and I'm just very fortunate to a part of the story. He's been a gift for me. The last time I got an ovation like this was probably when I kissed my wife at our wedding reception.
Although Smarty Jones has been compared to Secretariat, Servis said it's too early to make such comparisons. "I don't know that there'll ever be another Secretariat," he said. "There's nothing I'd love more than for my horse to be another Secretariat. All I can tell you is that he's improving all the time, and he's on that track. If he continues to improve, the possibility is certainly there."
Servis said he's still looking to ship Smarty Jones to Belmont as late as possible. "It's a lot like Pimlico," he said. "I've run a lot of horses there, and I've taken them up the morning of the race and they've run very well. My horse is doing really good right now, and you know the old saying, if it's not broke don't fix it. Well, we're keeping things the way they are."