It's hard to believe it's been a decade since Smarty Jones transformed from a rising 3-year-old Thoroughbred to bona fide folk hero. The up-and-coming colt cut a wide swath through the Triple Crown preps at Oaklawn Park during the early months of 2004 on his way to glory under the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs.
The eventual Kentucky Derby (gr. I) winner's commanding victories that spring in Louisville and in Baltimore at the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) helped the pint-sized Pennsylvania-bred bring 120,139 of his closest friends to Belmont Park for what figured to be a Triple Crown coronation.
Of course, the fairy tale ended at about the quarter pole of the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes (gr. I), as Birdstone and jockey Edgar Prado loomed to his outside and later blew past the tiring son of Elusive Quality to deny his bid of becoming a legend.
What helped Smarty Jones separate himself from a crowded pack of contenders that spring was a breakthrough performance—a race so good, that once fractions were broken down and analyzed, it showed the colt was flat out superior by several lengths to any other 3-year-old out there at the time.
That race was the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes, which will be renewed on March 15 in Hot Springs, Ark. Smarty Jones' run in the Rebel, which has grade II status now, proved a valuable key to unlocking that year's Run for the Roses.
Bred and raced by Roy and Patricia Chapman's Someday Farm and trained by Philadelphia-based John Servis, Smarty Jones had little competition against his own kind in a pair of starts at Philadelphia Park late in his 2-year-old year. He broke his maiden by 7 3/4 lengths going six furlongs, then won the seven-furlong Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes by 15 lengths in 1:21.88.
He shipped to New York where he ran off with the mile and 70-yard Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct Racetrack to kick off his 3-year-old campaign Jan. 3, 2004. The buzz that began in Pennsylvania started to build there.
"We wanted to try him two turns before we made the decision to go to Hot Springs with him," Servis said. "Three days after the race, we put him on the van."
Servis stared down the prep schedule at Oaklawn: the Southwest Stakes, the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, and the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby (then grade II, now grade I). The Southwest, contested over a mile at Oaklawn, is a bit of quirky race with a short stretch run to the finish line at the sixteenth pole. The trainer said his runner was at about 75% for the race.
"I thought it was a race he would probably lose," Servis said.
The bettors disagreed, sending Smarty Jones off at 1-2 in the nine horse field—and the plucky chestnut delivered with a three-quarter length win over Two Down Automatic and 3-1 second choice Pro Prado.
Servis tightened the screws for the Rebel and his runner threw down the best prep effort of the season. Sitting just off a moderate pace of :23.45 and :47.65 set by 2-1 favorite Purge, Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott took aim after six furlongs in 1:12.10 and collared the leader.
Here's where the superstar shook clear of the pack. He kicked clear to the sixteenth pole in 1:36.06 and finished the race 3 1/2 lengths in front in 1:42.07. That third quarter from six furlongs to the mile was run in an astounding :23.94. The final three-sixteenths of a mile were in a freaky :29.95, with a final sixteenth in a sizzling :06.01.
"He was just getting better," Servis said. "He matured and had filled out nicely. He was more rounded and he was more settled."
Looking at the raw numbers for the entire prep schedule for 2004--not taking into consideration the track or it's surface on any particular day--not a single race had times close to that.
2004 PREP RACE TIME COMPARISON
|Dist.||Final 1/2||Final 3/8||Final 3/16||Final 1/4||Final 1/8||Final 1/16||Winner|
Feb 7, SA
Feb 8, SA
|Fountain of Youth
|8 1/2||:31.50||:24.95||:06.55||Read the Footnotes|
Feb 14, GP
Feb 15, FG
|Sam F. Davis
Feb 21, Tam
|8 1/2||:31.90||:25.43||:06.47||Kaufy Mate|
|John Battaglia Mem.
Feb 28, TP
|8 1/2||:33.53||:26.24||:07.29||Silver Minister|
Feb 28, OP
Mar 6, SA
Mar 7, FG
Mar 13, GP
|7||:38.23||:24.76||:13.47||Wynn Dot Comm|
Mar 13, GP
|El Camino Real Derby
Mar 13, GG
Mar 14, SA
|Tampa Bay Derby
Mar 14, Tam
Mar 20, OP
|8 1/2||:29.95||:23.94||:06.01||SMARTY JONES|
Mar 20, Aqu
Mar 20, TP
Mar 28, Sun
|8 1/2||:33.44||:26.51||:06.93||Hi Teck Man|
|Santa Anita Derby
April 3, SA
April 3, Haw
|Toyota Blue Grass
April 10, Kee
|9||:38.30||:25.79||:12.51||The Cliff's Edge|
April 10, OP
April 10, Aqu
April 17, Kee
|8 1/2||:31.82||:25.36||:06.46||Quinton's Gold Rush|
April 17, Pim
April 24, CD
• The next-best time for the final full quarter-mile run in a prep was :24.76—or about three lengths slower than Smarty—and that was in the seven-furlong Swale Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream Park won by Wynn Dot Comm.
• The best three-sixteenths time was :31.50 in Read the Footnote's Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) score...a time approximately six lengths slower than Smarty.
• The best final sixteenth other than Smarty was set by Wimbledon in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), with a 06.42 time and that was with a final three-sixteenths in :32.06.
Again, these are raw times, but the numbers showed that heading to Louisville, Smarty was several lengths faster than his competition.
"A lot of people didn't pick up on that in the Rebel," Servis said. "He still had some naysayers heading into the Arkansas Derby, but the fact that he 'bounced' and still won it said a lot."
Smarty Jones' Arkansas Derby was a big score, but it wasn't nearly as impressive visually or on paper. Perhaps that is why he still had some detractors for the Kentucky Derby. He went off the favorite, but a tepid 4-1. Over a sloppy surface he stalked Lion Heart, cleared him in the lane, and earned his victory by 2 3/4 lengths. It was another 3 1/4 lengths back to San Vicente and San Rafael stakes (both gr. II) winner Imperialism.
"Every 3-year-old that a trainer or owner wants to be a Derby horse, that's what they have to see in February, March, and April," Servis said. "The ones that are good enough, do. A lot of people think they have a Derby horse in a 2-year-old, but the big key is they have to get better...they've got to get quite a bit better. You would think with maturity and growth that they would. Some do and some don't."
Smarty certainly did in the spring of 2004. Will any horse in this year's Rebel field offer up that kind of performance on Saturday?