If there's one thing harder than being from Philadelphia--the Eastern seaboard's perennial underdog--it's being from Baltimore, chronic runner-up even to Philly. But every so often, synergy works. The scrappy cities and a scrappy horse came together last week for a brilliant flash-paper moment in which Smarty Jones, a too-small Thoroughbred from an ordinary farm, roared to an 11.5-length win in the Preakness Stakes, the widest Preakness win ever and one that puts horse racing two-thirds of the way to its first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Coming on the hooves of his win in the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones might be one of the most remarkable horses ever to get this far. He's certainly one of the unlikeliest.
In a sport in which bloodlines are everything, neither Smarty Jones nor the team behind him had any business being in the winner's circle at Pimlico Race Course last week. Owners Roy and Patricia Chapman are an unlikely pair--Patricia is a peppy 62, and Roy, a weary 78, is confined to a wheelchair and hooked to an oxygen tank, the result of too many decades filled with too many Lucky Strikes. Far from a bluegrass blueblood, he made his living as a Philadelphia car dealer, and it was in his showroom in 1976 that he and Pat met. A decade later they went into the horse business, opening a 100-acre farm in Chester County, Pa.
The Chapmans' place was a lunch-bucket operation that never earned much acclaim. In 2001 the farm took a devastating hit when trainer Bob Camac and his wife were shot to death by the wife's son in a quarrel over money. That sucked the life out of Roy--from whom emphysema was already sucking the breath--and he decided to sell out. Pat persuaded him to keep two horses, a pair of yearlings they sent to a farm in Florida so that its general manager, George Isaacs, could evaluate them. "Let's see what you have here," Isaacs said to Roy. Ultimately, he pronounced one of the horses--Smarty Jones--a "runner."
Running, however, was something Smarty almost never got a chance to do. During a training session last July, he reared up in the starting gate and struck his head on an overhanging piece of steel. He collapsed with skull fractures and swelling so bad that his left eye protruded from its socket. He regained consciousness in the 45-minute ride to the veterinary center and impressed his handlers by trotting blithely in to see the doctor. By November he was well enough to run--and win--his first race. Seven races later he has yet to lose one.
The Preakness was his most impressive outing yet. Smarty Jones--which was the nickname of Pat's mother--woke up to a steamy Baltimore day in which the temperature reached 84° by post time. He seemed untroubled by the heat or anything else for that matter, ignoring the reporters massed outside his stall as he hung his head over the door webbing to enjoy the breeze from a fan. "That's the way you want him," said stable manager Bill Foster. "The more relaxed, the better."
When it was time to march to the gate, Smarty, a deep liver chestnut standing at a modest 15 hands 3 in., was dwarfed by some of the big battleship horses he would be racing against. But starting from the six spot in a 10-horse field, jockey Stewart Elliott, 39, ran a smart race that belied the horse's size.