04/30/2004 11:00PM

Elliott cool customer in rookie ride

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - On Monday, life will return to normal for Stewart Elliott when he rides The Fat Man in a $4,000 claiming race at Philadelphia Park.

On Saturday, Elliott was rewarded for a career of riding those types of horses when he guided Smarty Jones to a convincing 2 3/4-length victory in the 130th Kentucky Derby at soggy Churchill Downs. Elliott, a 39-year-old journeyman who was born in Canada, became the first jockey since Ron Franklin in 1979 to win the Derby with his first Derby mount.

The soft-spoken Elliott, who nearly quit the game in the 1980's due to a weight problem, had a hard time putting his feelings into words.

"I crossed the wire in front," he said. "I can't explain it; it's unbelievable that I won the Kentucky Derby. It feels great. There's no words for it."

Some pundits wondered whether Elliott would be savvy enough to handle the nerves associated with riding in his first Kentucky Derby. Those questions were answered just before the 18-horse field entered the first turn when space began to tighten up for Smarty Jones, who was outside of Read the Footnotes and inside of Pollard's Vision and Quintons Gold Rush.

But Elliott handled it with aplomb and stood his ground. He kept Smarty Jones on a straight course entering the backside and he soon moved past that trio into second position midway down the backside. From there, he set his sights on front-running Lion Heart.

"There were a few more horses than I expected and it jammed up a little bit," Elliott said about the first turn. "No big deal; things worked out fine. We got clear sailing down the backside. When he did get outside of Lion Heart he got on the bit, and I knew we were going to be very dangerous."

Elliott's ride even impressed Jerry Bailey, the two-time Kentucky Derby-winning rider who provided commentary for NBC Sports after his Derby mount, Wimbledon, was withdrawn on Friday due to injury.

"He looked like he was riding at Churchill Downs all his life and in this race every year," Bailey said. "He was just flawless on this ride."

Before this, Elliott's biggest win had come in the Coaching Club American Oaks with Jostle. That ride was for John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones, who stuck with Elliott when agents of other riders had contacted him to ride.

"Absolutely masterful ride, unbelievable ride by Stew," Servis said.

And the ride may just be beginning.