Philly Faithful

A woman was crouched on the floor of the media center at Churchill Downs, taking in every word as Roy and Pat Chapman, John Servis, and Stewart Elliott responded to questions after Smarty Jones, the pride of Philly, rolled to victory in the country's most cherished race.

Her eyes told the story. The spark was still there, and so was the passion. Even after all those years, some of which weren't too kind.

Rochelle Lee Lopez arrived on the Delaware Valley racing scene in the early 1970s. She was barely 20, competing on a male-dominated circuit that was among the toughest in the nation.

Trainers liked what they saw. Rochelle rode plenty of winners, many of them at Keystone, now Philadelphia Park. Longtime observers of the Philly scene will tell you, if Rochelle hadn't gotten seriously banged up in racing accidents, one of them horrific, she could have been one of the all-time leading female riders.

Rochelle fought back several times in an effort to continue her riding career, but finally called it quits in the late 1980s. She ended up working as a racing official at Philly Park, and finally left the track a few years ago, continuing to battle lingering effects of her injuries.

In 1980, one of her better years, Rochelle needed an agent at Atlantic City Race Course and hired Servis, who would go on to become an assistant trainer and finally go out on his own. Their friendship continues to this day. Rochelle's husband, Ray Lopez, is a jockey agent who currently handles the book of Elliott, the top rider at Philly Park. The three guys are outdoorsmen who like to go hunting together.

"There's an amazing thread that links us all together," Rochelle said. "This story is just awesome. The Chapmans are people with great hearts, the kind of people that really make the business go. If we didn't have people like them, we wouldn't have a Derby."

The Chapmans, who bred and own Smarty Jones, are from Bucks County, home of Philly Park, a grind-it-out racetrack that never has gotten much national attention. Racing fans who grew up in the Delaware Valley have an appreciation and fondness for the place, if for no other reason than necessity. Three area tracks have closed, and another lies in an uncovered grave.

Philly Park is a survivor, and some nice horses have been based there over the years. Champions, however, have been hard to come by. The track was home to Gallant Bob and My Juliet, who won national sprint titles almost 30 years ago. Even the Phillies have won a World Series since then.

Some talented horsemen and jockeys have called Philly Park home, including Tony Black, the track's all-time leading rider and regular pilot of My Juliet. Like Rochelle, Black never got much of a look outside of the Valley, nor had Servis, who has had a training license since 1984.

Never mind all the other folks who work on the backstretch every day, including all members of the Servis team who helped turn a Philly Park flash into a potential champion. A lot has to come together to win even a $5,000 claiming race at Philly, let alone the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) at Churchill Downs.

"It's a tough, tough time," Rochelle said. "You need every link to make it work, and the Chapmans are so aware of the importance of that. They see the whole picture. Some people don't appreciate the love and dedication people have on the backside, but they do.

"There are all these factors that have to be there to have a Kentucky Derby winner. I say the same thing about my career. All of the factors weren't there for me. But when you're doing what you love, you don't have to be in the limelight. If you are, it's a bonus."

Rochelle never rode in the Derby, but she finally got to participate in one through her connection to Smarty Jones. So did the Philly faithful, whose passion for claiming ownership to a winner in a major league sport is undying. By all reports, the cheering and camaraderie at Philly Park and local Turf Clubs was unprecedented when Smarty Jones brought home the roses.

Smarty Jones, who has overcome his own share of obstacles, really did score one for the little guy. Cliché be damned. Rochelle was just one of many people who shared in this long overdue dream.

TOM LaMARRA, news editor of The Blood-Horse, grew up 30 minutes from Philadelphia Park.

E-mail Tom LaMarra