So earlier this week, when the three-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer pegged Someday Farm's Smarty Jones as the top 3-year-old in the country, the national spotlight began to shine a little brighter on the undefeated colt, whose roots are firmly planted at Philadelphia Park.
By LINDA DOUGHERTY
"Team Smarty" is composed of trainer John Servis, who lives in Bensalem; owners Pat and Roy Chapman, who have a home in Kennett Square and are the founders of the Chapman Ford auto dealerships throughout the Philadelphia area, and jockey Stewart Elliott, a Washington Crossing, Pa. resident and the top rider at Philadelphia Park.
Elliott is aware of the growing interest and respect for Smarty Jones, as evidenced by Baffert's vote of confidence.
"A lot of the 3-year-old races this year I didn't get to see either because I was riding or traveling," said Elliott, a 39-year-old native of Toronto, Canada. "But I'm starting to pay closer attention to the competition, especially since Smarty Jones is getting a lot of publicity."
The publicity will no doubt rise to a fever pitch should Smarty Jones win his next start, the $1 million Arkansas Derby (Grade 2) on April 10 at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., where he's been based since January. He would head to Churchill Downs as the only undefeated Kentucky Derby entrant since Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in 1977, which is pretty elite company.
Elliott has been a key component of Smarty Jones' development into a Kentucky Derby contender since the chestnut made his first start at Philadelphia Park on Nov. 9. In that maiden special weight race, the Pennsylvania-bred son of Elusive Quality-I'll Get Along, by Smile, was dispatched at even money, and blew away his competition by nearly eight lengths.
In every start since - through the $50,000 Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes, in which he blazed seven furlongs in 1:21 4/5; to the $85,000 Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct in early January, his first start around two-turns, and continuing to Oaklawn Park for victories in the $100,000 Southwest and $200,000 Rebel Stakes - Elliott has been in the saddle.
He's witnessed first-hand the changes in the sometimes cantankerous colt, who is often a handful in the barn and in the paddock before a race, as well as during the race itself.
"In the New York race (Count Fleet), it was his first start around two turns, and he was a little hard to settle but I was able to get him to relax and he won," said Elliott. "Then before his next start (the Southwest on Feb. 28) he'd had some time off and I knew he was fresh because when I went into the paddock there he was on his hind legs (rearing up).
"I said to myself, 'Wow, I'm gonna have my hands full!' but he rated for me although he was getting tired the last part of it," said Elliott.
"John (Servis) had told me that 'Smarty' wasn't 100 percent fit for the race, but that he would be fitter for his next start, the Rebel (at 1-1/16 miles on March 20)."
Servis was right. In the Rebel, he sat off the early pacesetter Purge, then made his move around the far turn and put that rival away, drawing off to win by three and one-quarter lengths in 1:42, which earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 106, one of the biggest posted by a 3-year-old this year.
"He was much more settled in the paddock for the Rebel and he ran a much more professional race," said Elliott, whose father Dennis rode for 22 years and currently lives in Ocala, Fla., where he buys and sells horses. "We didn't want to run head-and-head with the speed horse (Purge) so I took a little hold of him and let that horse go on.
"At about the three-eighths pole the horse in front was still going easily, so I decided it was time to put a little pressure on him," said Elliott.
"I set Smarty Jones down, and he responded immediately. It was all over with down the stretch. I had a hard time pulling him up past the finish line."
Because Elliott has remained at Philadelphia Park to ride horses for his established clientele, Servis has had to recruit other riders to work Smarty Jones in the morning. Elliott said that, if he wasn't so far away, he'd be working the colt, but doesn't feel it puts him at a disadvantage come race day.
"As long as John (Servis) is satisfied, that's all that matters," said Elliott.
Servis and the Chapmans have kept Elliott as Smarty Jones' regular rider despite the colt's rise to stardom. In a sport where top jockeys like Jerry Bailey, Pat Day and Gary Stevens often replace local riders in classic events, their dedication to Elliott makes the Smarty Jones story even more compelling.
"Well, Stewart's won a lot of races for me, not only at Philadelphia Park but in New York," said Servis. "I mean, he won aboard Jostle (a multiple Grade 1-winning filly) when I had her up there. He's a very good rider and one that I feel very comfortable with."
Said Elliott: "John is very easy to ride for. He doesn't say too much before a race - we'll talk about it a little - but one thing I know is that he's an excellent trainer and a great judge of his horses."
This will be Elliott's first start in a $1 million race, despite having logged more than 3,000 victories in his career. Most horsemen regard him as cool in pressure situations, a terrific judge of pace, and a smart rider - which all adds up to his position atop the Philadelphia Park jockey standings.
True to his nature, if the pressure of winning a $1 million race aboard an undefeated colt is weighing heavily on Elliott's mind, he isn't letting it show.
"I'll try to watch some races beforehand and see how the Oaklawn track is playing," he said. "I don't think Smarty Jones will have much of a problem handling the mile-and-an-eighth distance of the Arkansas Derby."