05/07/2004 12:00AM

This champ deserves the hype


PHILADELPHIA - The Kentucky Derby winner returned to his home at Philadelphia Park on Tuesday night. That was not a sentence I ever expected to type.

Smarty Jones arrived at the Pha just about a year ago. He came with a sterling reputation. His owners and soon-to-be trainer had been told he was special.

Who could have ever imagined this?

It is now real. A horse from Philadelphia Park has won the Derby.

As longshots go, there really are none longer. This was a dream so impossible it was never a dream - until trainer John Servis got a long look at Smarty on the track and watched him barrel through his first two races at the Pha last November.

Then, a plan was hatched. In a sport where almost nothing ever goes according to plan, Servis never had to deviate from his. So, here Smarty is now, a perfect 7 for 7 and the overwhelming favorite for the May 15 Preakness. If he wins that, he will become just the third horse to run in the Belmont Stakes without a loss.

Majestic Prince (1969) was hurting by the Belmont, finished second, and never raced again. Seattle Slew (1977) won the Triple Crown and promptly got drubbed in his next race.

Keeping a horse perfect is very tough business. It is especially difficult in this era of horses so fragile that even getting them to the post is an achievement. What Smarty has done so far is amazing. If he keeps doing it, there are statues waiting to be created.

So can Smarty keep doing it? After racing every three weeks since Feb. 28, Smarty must now come back in two weeks.

If he can overcome the between-horses trip he had for the early parts of the Derby and accelerate after Lion Heart on the far turn with such fury, you would think he can handle coming back in two weeks.

After earning an 84 Beyer in his debut, Smarty came back 13 days later to earn a 105 in a Pennsylvania-bred stakes. So, he has done two weeks.

Unlike every other member of his generation, Smarty never needs excuses. He shows up. He flashes early speed. He gets position. He runs hard. He never gets passed. He wins.

His Beyers are as consistent as the others are inconsistent. The Derby figure of 107 was the same as the Arkansas Derby figure and 1 point below the Rebel.

The surface at Churchill Downs changed dramatically after the monsoon that hit after race 8. The first seven dirt races were 11 Beyer points fast. The last three dirt races were just 1 point fast. The speed of the track slowed down that much after the heavy rain.

Thus, Smarty's apparently slow 2:04.06 wasn't really slow at all. It was his typical effort.

It is reasonable to say others were affected by the slop. The Cliff's Edge, Tapit, Borrego, Song of the Sword, Master David, Pro Prado, and Castledale ran an average of 20 Beyer points worse than in their previous start. It is not likely all of them went so far off form. The surface had to hinder some of them.

But that is the beauty of Smarty Jones. He is unaffected by anything. He needs no help. He makes his own trip. And he is back to training at Philadelphia Park.