Strike Up the Band for Stewart Elliott

Strike Up the Band for Stewart Elliott
Photo: Jeff Coady
Jockey Stewart Elliott races into the spotlight aboard Derby star Smarty Jones.
By Dick Downey
TheDowneyProfile.com

"The band started playing 'My Old Kentucky Home.' People in the stands were singing. Suddenly I found myself thinking how far I had come from Les Bois Park. I thought about my mom and dad and everything that had happened to me in my life, from the time I was a kid, and here I was at Churchill Downs for the first time, on national TV.... The tears came, just as Shoemaker had said.--Gary Stevens writing about the 1985 Kentucky Derby, his first, in The Perfect Ride.

Stewart Elliott is the leading jockey at Philadelphia Park. During the current meet, which began January 1, he has ridden 377 mounts there, finishing first 85 times for a 23% win rate. His horses have finished second on 78 occasions, and 47 of them have run third, an in-the-money percentage of 56%. His mounts have earned $1,090,035 through April 19. He has been named Pennsylvania's top rider three consecutive years and appears headed for a fourth.

Despite his local success, Elliott hasn't exactly been a household name outside of Philadelphia. Yet he is going to ride the most consistent horse in Kentucky Derby 130, the six-for-six Smarty Jones, who will attempt to become the first undefeated Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.

Elliott will be facing the most accomplished riders in the business. Gary Stevens, who may be aboard Preachinatthebar, won the Derby in 1988 (Winning Colors), 1995 (Thunder Gulch) and 1997 (Silver Charm). Jerry Bailey, who recently picked up the mount on Wimbledon, won in 1993 (Sea Hero) and 1996 (Grindstone). Kent Desormeaux, who won in 1998 (Real Quiet) and 2000 (Fusaichi Pegasus), will ride Imperialism. Between the three of them, they have won seven of the last 16 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

But the list doesn't stop there. 2003 winner Jose Santos (Funny Cide) will be there on Limehouse; Victor Espinoza, who won in 2002 (War Emblem), will ride Borrego; Pat Day (Lil E. Tee, 1992) will go on Minister Eric; and even Pat Valenzuela, who won in 1989 (Sunday Silence), is rumored to be Derby-bound after his suspension was lifted by the California Horse Racing Board a few days ago.

That's a total of 11 jockeys that have won the last 16 Runs for the Roses. The five jocks missing from those 16 races are two-time winner Chris Antley, who is deceased, Chris McCarron, retired, and Craig Perret and Jorge Chavez.

Despite the wealth of talent out there, trainer John Servis has stayed with Elliott. Just after Smarty Jones won the Grade II Arkansas Derby, Servis, with Elliott sitting beside him, acknowledged that he'd been called by plenty of jockey agents looking for a Derby horse. But Servis, who's ranked ninth in the trainer standings at the current Philadelphia Park meeting, was firm and unhesitating as he answered reporters' questions about whether he would go forward with Elliott.

There was a quiet confidence about both these men during that press briefing. Whether he is shy or doesn't like to talk to reporters, Elliott was obviously happy, but reserved, as if there was another job to do before he decided to cut down the nets. This man's face has character; it is the face of a man who has seen the highs and lows of his sport. His demeanor indicates the presence of an inner strength--and a job yet left to perform.

In the meantime, Elliott will be at Philadelphia Park this Saturday to autograph Smarty Jones memorabilia, with the proceeds going to the Backstretch Relief Fund. After that job is done, and only after that, he will leave for Kentucky to meet his destiny.

Now I knew I had to compose myself. As the song ended and the pre-race warmup began, I started focusing on what my strategy would be....--Gary Stevens.

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