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Rocky sells at Churchill Downs

May 3, 2004 11:43 PM

Move over, Seabiscuit. Forget Funny Cide.

By winning the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones, who began his career at a Tower of London track called Philadelphia Park, became the feel-good sports story of the year, and I’m not saying that because I’m a native Philadelphian or because I scratched into picking him.

I’m saying it because it’s true. Trained by a man who had never before attended the Kentucky Derby, and ridden by a jockey who spent most of his career on the game’s leaky-roof circuit and who had never ridden in the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones, a nerd of a Thoroughbred, remained undefeated in seven starts, smacking the faces of the game’s smug experts.

You can call him Smarty Jones, but I call him "Rocky," because he’s an underdog horse from Philly that won the Derby by a knockout.

If not Sylvester Stallone, then other Hollywood treatment specialists would do well to present movie offers to 45-year-old trainer John Servis, 39-year-old jockey Stewart Elliott and the 78-year-old, wheelchair-bound owner of Team Smarty Jones, Roy Chapman, because there are enough human interest angles in this heart-warming story to appeal to a mass audience.

For only the fourth time in 130 years, the Derby track came up sloppy, and that may have aided Smarty Jones, one of the few speed horses in the race. But he still had to win a mile and a quarter, further than pedigree gurus said he could. The track was soggy, but it wasn’t that bad. I mean, the name of the track didn’t have to be changed to Churchill Drowns.

To the betting public’s credit, Smarty Jones did go off the 4-1 post time favorite, which qualifies as "News You Can Bet On" from my Gaming Today column of April 13-19, to wit: "Smarty Jones, who began his career at a no-frills track called Philadelphia Park, deserves to be the post time favorite, despite the fact that he is a homebred colt by Elusive Quality and thus cost less than Seattle Slew, who was a $17,500 yearling."

That’s why the vast majority of handicappers and bloodline experts dismissed Smarty Jones in their selections. They were so enamored with the mystique of the Sheets and with scrutinizing pedigrees, they overlooked what counts most: the horse’s passion for winning.

Wrote one lineage Lothario about Smarty Jones: "The class of his female family has enabled him to get 11/8 miles, but he will find 11/4 miles beyond his scope."

This guy should realize that pedigrees are over-rated. My father was a successful standup comedian, but the last place I’d want to find myself is on stage trying to make people laugh. A clocker once raved to me about a horse’s workout. I told him, "If every horse ran to its works, you’d be the richest guy at the track." Horses aren’t machines. Workouts and times are not the definitive end-all of handicapping. The last place to measure the size of a horse’s heart is on black and white lines of newsprint.

But smart money made Smarty Jones the post time choice, even though he had never raced at Taj Mahals on the East Coast. He never ran at august bastions of racing like Belmont Park or Saratoga. His stopping points besides Philadelphia Park included a January sojourn to blustery and barren Aqueduct, and a tour of duty in Bill Clinton country, at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. Smarty Jones won three races there, including the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby. By virtue of those two wins and his triumph in the Run for the Roses, he picked up a cool $5 million bonus, thanks to Oaklawn Park’s incentive program.

As for Smarty Jones being the post time favorite, maybe it was wise guys from South Philly who sent the money in, or perhaps computer whizzes from nearby Drexel University in West Philly, who knows? Perhaps someone knew Elliott was about to render the ride of his life, never panicking when in tight going into the first turn and not allowing Mike Smith on Lion Heart to steal away leaving the far turn. As Jerry Bailey so accurately analyzed on NBC-TV, "You’d have thought he rode this race a thousand times."

Even though he was favored, of 25 selections in the Daily Racing Form, only one picked Smarty Jones to win and only five had him in their first three or four selections.

But the Derby unfolded as it figured on paper, with two speed horses running one-two most of the race, merely reversing places in the stretch.

Steam horses like Master David (12th), Tapit (ninth), Borrego (10th) and 4-1 morning line ­­favorite The Cliff’s Edge (fifth) were still running, last time I looked. But their trainers had ready excuses, I’m sure: the sloppy track. They’ll predict a different story for the Preakness on May 15, what with a fast track and new shooters. But let them rant.

Second-guessers and naysayers can speculate all they want now that the Derby is over, but one thing is certain: there’s only one horse on the planet that can win the Triple Crown, and that’s racing’s "Rocky," Smarty Jones.

The homestretch:

Luis Jauregui and Kent Desormeaux are but two members of the Southern California jockey colony who have signed a two-page letter of protest to the California Horse Racing Board, demanding it rescind the decision that allows Patrick Valenzuela to ride pending his appeal.

"The stewards made the ruling (suspending Valenzuela until Dec. 31, 2004, before he can apply for reinstatement) and now another member of the industry (CHRB Chairman John Harris) overrides it," Jauregui said. "What are the stewards for? I know this kind of thing has happened before, but when are we going to stop it?"

Added Desormeaux on Valenzuela, who has become a pariah in the jocks’ room: "I follow all the rules of California driving. We have rules we must follow in racing, too. I think it’s just that simple. I’d just like proof of his testing (for drugs). I have to abide by the rules and so should everyone else. I’m going to pray for him, I’ll tell you that. I’m going to pray for the guy."

The letter was signed by18 riders. One who reportedly did not was Fernando Valenzuela, Patrick’s 34-year-old cousin, proving that in this instance, blood is thicker than water. Meanwhile, business is booming for Patrick, who was on the verge of leading the Hollywood Park standings despite missing the first four days of the meet.

Business is so good, Pat’s agent, Corey Black, a former rider who has been an active exercise rider since his retirement a few years back, has given up working horses to concentrate full time on Pat’s business. "I don’t want to be distracted," Black said. "I don’t want to risk overlooking something by working horses."