Someday Farm's Smarty Jones has made believers out of those who scoffed at his pedigree; who doubted his ability to handle two-turns, and thumbed their noses at the capability of his virtually unknown trainer and jockey to win major events.
After his smashing victory in Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby (Grade 2), in which he extended his unbeaten streak to six races, Smarty Jones now heads to the Bluegrass State of Kentucky for his next major hurdle, the 130th Kentucky Derby, of which he is considered the early favorite.
But while 'Smarty' and his entourage - trainer John Servis, assistant Bill Foster, groom Mario Arriago and exercise rider Pete Vantrump - head north towards Lexington, Ky., where he'll train at Keeneland Racecourse, the home fires at Philadelphia Park are burning brightly.
Maureen Donnelly, 42, Servis' assistant, stayed behind in Bensalem with 35 horses while the Smarty Jones traveling show hit the road in mid-January.
While Servis was attending to his "big" horse and 13 other thoroughbreds at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., Donnelly was overseeing seven grooms, seven hotwalkers, three exercise riders and the myriad of details that goes along with a 35-horse stable.
"John's on the phone with me every morning, and we go over each horse," said Donnelly. "He's great to work for. He never yells at you, he talks very calmly about things. I think he's enjoying all the attention that Smarty Jones has brought to him."
Donnelly, who's worked on the racetrack for 23 years and has her trainer's license, was instrumental in helping Smarty Jones during the most catastrophic event of his young life...an event that threatened not only to end his racing career, but his life.
Early in his 2-year-old year, Smarty Jones and Some Image, another horse owned by Pat and Roy Chapman (Someday Farm), arrived at Servis' Philadelphia Park barn from Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla. to begin their serious preparation for racing.
"We had heard from the farm that Smarty Jones was a very nice colt, so we were ready for him," said Donnelly, who at the time was also galloping and exercising horses for Servis.
One morning in early spring, however, Donnelly was astride Some Image in the starting gate, in the stall right next to Smarty Jones, as they prepared to break for a final workout. Then it happened.
"Smarty went straight up in the air," said Donnelly. "He hit his head on an iron bar, and I don't think I've seen a worse injury. There was blood pouring from his eye and nose...they got him out of the gate and there was blood everywhere. When they led him back to the barn, there was a blood trail all the way.
"We stood him outside and took a hose and just let cold water run over his eye and his nose (he had broken a sinus cavity and bones around his left eye)," she remembered. "We must've done that for an hour and a half. The veterinarian came and looked at him, and tried to help him. The vet said in the morning, if he's worse, we should send him to the equine hospital.
"The next morning, it was much worse," said Donnelly. "He looked like something out of a scary movie. His eye was so swollen you could hardly see the pupil."
Smarty Jones was sent to the N. J. Equine Center in Clarksburg where he stayed for three weeks. He recovered enough so that he was able to spend a month on a farm near Philadelphia Park, but whether he would ever have complete vision again was in question. His vision is now fine, although Donnelly said the eye still tears up, or weeps, occasionally.
Thus, it's with a great deal of pride that Donnelly and the rest of "Team Smarty" will be watching his exploits on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. While the day of the Derby will be normal in many ways, with one or more of Servis' 35 other horses racing that afternoon at Philadelphia Park, it will also be a time to celebrate, win or lose.
"We're a big team," she said, "so half of us will probably watch the race in the grandstand and the other half in the track kitchen. We're very excited."