04/06/2004 12:00AM

Big dreams riding on Smarty Jones

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Jeff Coady/Coady Photography
Smarty Jones and his trainer, John Servis, will have a great deal at stake in the $1 million Arkansas Derby on Saturday at Oaklawn Park.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The whole thing smacks of destiny, or of a story too ripe to be true. Take one modest little Pennsylvania colt, stir in tales of murder and mayhem, add a high-rolling racetrack owner, and cap it all off with a Florida couple who have already survived a toxic dose of bad luck at the top of the racing game.

Smarty Jones is that colt. Roy and Pat Chapman are that couple. And Charles Cella is the racetrack owner who has offered $5 million to the horse who can sweep the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, and the Kentucky Derby this spring.

Chances are, had the March 20 Rebel gone to an average 3-year-old with a so-so record, Saturday's 68th running of the Arkansas Derby would be viewed as just another pit stop on the rocky road to Churchill Downs.

Smarty Jones changed the dynamic, however, with an impressive 3 1/4-length Rebel victory in scorching good time that ran his record to 5 for 5. Now he is poised for the Arkansas Derby, fully acclimated to Oaklawn's red dirt track and training like a bomb.

Since escaping the Philadelphia Park winter last January, Smarty Jones, trainer John Servis, and his road team have occupied a quiet corner of the Oaklawn backstretch. No one outside the inner circle paid them much mind. After all, Smarty Jones had done nothing more than win a restricted race back home in Pennsylvania, then some little stake on the Aqueduct inner track. Hardly the major leagues.

But as the apple blossoms emerged, so has Smarty Jones, finding himself now on the threshold of celebrity beyond all expectations.

"I hope he goes all the way," said Cella, whose track raised the Arkansas Derby purse to $1 million this year, equaled only by the Florida Derby among Triple Crown preps. "It would be the greatest thing that ever happened to Arkansas racing."

Cella is about the last racetrack operator who figured to put up a multi-million bonus hooked to the Kentucky Derby. First of all, it's a lot of money, expensive to insure, and fraught with embarrassing possibilities. It is also a gimmick, and Cella is no fan of public relations gimmicks.

"Frankly, I don't approve of bonuses," Cella said. "But this is our centennial celebration at Oaklawn, and we wanted to attract the best possible 3-year-olds so that our loyal patrons could enjoy them."

As for the $5 million hooked to the Kentucky Derby, Cella said half the amount is insured, "and we're playing craps with the other half." He did not mean that literally, although the thought might have occurred to him before.

Back in 1987, Oaklawn offered a $1 million bonus to any horse who could pull off the Arkansas-Kentucky derby parlay. Demons Begone, owned by Arkansas lumberman John Ed Anthony, won the Rebel like a very good colt and was the horse to beat in the Arkansas Derby. The bonus was starting to look winnable.

Not long after the Rebel, Cella found himself at a Las Vegas hotel for a headline prizefight. He figured, as long as he was there, he might as well pay a visit to casino management and try to bankroll that looming $1 million bonus.

"I told them I had a corporate check for $250,000, and that I wanted to buy the Kentucky Derby winter book on Demons Begone at 30-1," Cella said. "They left like bears going to honey, came back 10 minutes later, and said they couldn't do that, but they'd let me bet $10,000 at 10-1 and $10,000 at 15-1."

Cella took their price, Demons Begone won the Arkansas Derby, and then went postward as the favorite for the 113th Kentucky Derby. But the tale ended badly when Demons Begone bled and never even finished the race.

"Needless to say, we were all chagrined back here in Arkansas," Cella said.

Seventeen years later, Cella and the Oaklawn staff are ready to dive back in again. If Smarty Jones can win in Hot Springs on Saturday, he will hit the Louisville scene with all the glamour of an undefeated colt going for an unprecedented Kentucky Derby payday.

"Let's hope we have that problem," said Servis, a 45-year-old Philly Park mainstay. "Five million? That'll be a problem I'll be able to handle."

Servis, the son of retired West Virginia racing steward Joe Servis, has been training horses more than half his life. He owned his first horse at the age of 17, a magnificent gray that he proudly displayed to a respected racetrack mentor.

"Don't feed him another oat," the old-timer said, "because you'll be wasting an oat."

The young horseman was stunned. He thought he was holding onto the next Native Dancer. But Servis paid attention, and the guy was right.

"I sold him a week later for five hundred and made a little bit of money," Servis said. "The horse ran one time and never again."

When it came to Smarty Jones, there was no mistaking his quality. From the start, Servis knew the colt had speed to burn, as would befit a son of Elusive Quality, the world's record-holder for a mile, and a grandson of sprint champion Smile. Yet, every move Smarty Jones makes tells Servis that nine to 10 furlongs should be well within his range.

"He's small, but he's a long colt with a tremendous stride," Servis said. "Watch him gallop. We've been trying to teach him to go off easy and pick it up as he goes. He's learned, but he will test you."

There's a little of Funny Cide in the syrupy chesnut coat of Smarty Jones, and plenty of Funny Cide adventure in his past. Roy and Pat Chapman bred the colt at their Someday Farm in Chester County, Pa.

For starters, the name comes from Pat Chapman's mother, Mildred McNair, who died in 1989. Her grandparents, "Momma and Papa Jones," gave her the nickname "Smarty."

"She would have relished every minute of what happened with Smarty Jones," Pat Chapman said from her home in Florida on Boca Grande Island, near Sarasota. "She would have been right in the middle of it."

Smarty Jones hit the ground on Feb. 28, 2001 - Mildred's birthday - but it was in December of that year the Chapmans suffered a body blow to their racing operation when their trainer, Robert Camac, was murdered by his stepson.

Reeling from the shock, the Chapmans temporarily lost their enthusiasm for the game and sold off some of their bloodstock, including I'll Get Along, the dam of Smarty Jones. In addition to training I'll Get Along through a successful career, it was Camac who had advised on both her original purchase and her eventual breeding to Elusive Quality.

"I kick myself for ever selling her," Roy Chapman said. "But with Uncle Sam, you've got to make a profit every once in awhile.

"I'll never forget the day we bought her, though," Chapman went on. "She had a little bump, down near her tendon. We must have looked at it for two hours before she went on the block. Bob kept feeling it, bringing people over, and finally said if we can get her for $25,000 or $30,000, go ahead. We went to $40,000, and thank goodness we did."

Servis and the Chapmans connected through Bridlewood Farm in Florida, where farm manager George Isaacs tabbed the young Smarty Jones as a colt to watch.

"George is a very quiet man," said Chapman, founder of the Chapman Auto Group of dealerships in the Mid-atlantic region. "When he said we really had something, that meant a lot. He asked if we wanted to sell the colt and named a pretty nice price, especially for a horse that hadn't even been off the farm. I said no, send him up. This might be my last hurrah."

The news was all good from Servis until that morning last spring when Smarty Jones smashed the left side of his skull in the starting gate.

"We had two colts with John," Chapman said. "John called that morning and said something happened to one of our horses. I didn't have to guess which one. It never seems to happen to the slow ones."

Smarty Jones recovered and has shown no ill effects from the injury. Indeed, Chapman thinks the delay might have worked to the colt's advantage.

"I'm no expert," he said. "But I just think sometimes they just run these 2-year-olds too hard. If anything, I think his late start helped him."

The best horse the Chapmans ever owned was a steeplechaser named Uncle Merlin, winner of the 1989 Maryland Hunt Cup. The following spring they found themselves in the owners' box at Aintree Race Course in Liverpool, England, awaiting the start of the Grand National Steeplechase, the world's most famous jump race. Uncle Merlin was among the betting favorites.

The Grand National, which was run for the 157th time last Saturday, asks horses to handle 30 difficult fences over 4 miles and 856 yards, with endurance, speed, and skill tested to the extreme. Let the record show that, after 21 fences, Uncle Merlin was racing on the lead - just ahead of eventual winner Mr. Frisk and far ahead of the rest - when they came to Becher's Brook, the most dreaded jump in the sport. Uncle Merlin cleared Becher's but landed off balance, jolting jockey Hywel Davies out of the saddle.

"Uncle Merlin kept going and jumped the last eight fences without his jockey," Pat Chapman recalled. "He finished third, but you know, they wouldn't give us a thing. I almost felt like he won."

With that trauma firmly embedded in their racing past, the Chapmans may be due a run of good fortune

"We've had so many offers, incredible offers, but we've turned them all down," Pat said. "Of course, my husband being in the car business all his life, he loves a good deal, and this has made him kind of itchy. But if we sold this horse for a ton of money, what would we do differently? Not a darn thing."

Roy Chapman had to miss the Rebel due to a bout of pneumonia, a complication of the emphysema he battles daily.

"Outside of that, I'm in pretty good shape," Chapman said. "I carry a bottle of oxygen, and I get around in a little cart. But I exercise, and I can get up and walk around the house when I need to. The only thing is, with emphysema, it can really bother you if you get a little excited."

He's willing to take that risk on Saturday at Oaklawn, and he is looking forward to even more excitement down the line. Chapman will turn 78 on May 4, tantalizingly close to that special first Saturday of the month, when the racing world convenes in Louisville. Asked what he would like for his birthday, he laughed, then paused for effect:

"Well . . . I would like to go to the Kentucky Derby."

If Smarty Jones has anything to do with it, that just might be arranged.