Updated on 09/17/2011 2:43PM

Elliott enjoying new friends, new life, big horse

"Even though I was messing up, I was taking care of business pretty good in the beginning. I guess I was what they'd call a functioning alcoholic." - Stewart Elliott

BENSALEM, Pa. - Stewart Elliott could just as easily be out of the game of Thoroughbred racing as he is at the center of it.

A battle with weight in the early 1990's left the jockey sidelined and thinking about changing professions. A battle with the bottle in the mid- to late 90's resulted in a health problem that forced him to lose the mount on his best horse. A physical battle with a friend, and another altercation with an ex-girlfriend, nearly landed him in jail.

Those are all distant memories now for Elliott, 39, who has had his past publicized and scrutinized since guiding Smarty Jones to victory in the Kentucky Derby on May 1. Saturday, three weeks after riding Smarty Jones to a record-setting victory in the Preakness, Elliott seeks to be immortalized into the pantheon of racing when he tries to lead that undefeated chestnut colt to victory in the Belmont Stakes and a sweep of the sport's Triple Crown, a feat that has not been accomplished in 26 years.

If successful, Elliott would become just the 11th rider in history to win a Triple Crown, and the first since teenager Steve Cauthen did it aboard Affirmed in 1978. Unlike Cauthen, who was at the beginning of his career, Elliott is closer to the completion of his.

"I'm 39 years old," said Elliott, who began riding in 1981 at the age of 16. "I can't ride forever; I don't want to ride forever. If I could have another seven years, I'm guessing that'd be good. I'd like to be able to ride good horses. I'd like to be able to ride in stakes races. . . . That's what it's all about. If you're going to ride horses, you might as well ride the good ones."

Smarty Jones, who has won all eight of his starts, is as good as it gets. So good, that Elliott says he is now spoiled when he rides a cheap horse, the kind that make up the bulk of his 3,282 victories over a 23-year career.

"After you ride a horse like Smarty Jones you get spoiled," Elliott said this week in the Philadelphia Park jockey quarters. "You ride him and he wins every time; he just does everything you need him to do. Then you come over here and you ride a $5,000 claimer."

In his quest to rider better horses, Elliott will ride at Monmouth Park, where he will ride first call for Michael Gill, one of the East Coast's most powerful owners. He'll also ride for many of the same trainers he had success for at Philadelphia Park, including John Servis, the trainer of Smarty Jones.

Good times, bad times

Elliott will make the one-hour commute from his Washington Crossing, Pa., home to Monmouth Park. In returning to New Jersey, Elliott dredges up some of the best and worst moments of his life.

In 1981, Elliott won 111 races and was the leading apprentice rider at Atlantic City Race Course. He knocked out a consistent living riding on the East Coast, and in 1989, when he was based in New England, Elliott won

381 races, the third-best total in the country behind Kent Desormeaux and Pat Day.

"He could do things on a horse that only the good riders could do,'' said Max Hall, Elliott's agent from 1982-89. "One thing I've always done with all my riders is I test them; I put a lot of pressure on them right away. The more pressure I put on him, the better he rode. Remember, he was just a kid when I had him and he was cool as a cucumber back then.''

By 1991, however, Elliott was nearly out of the game. Summoned to south Florida by the trainer Kent Stirling, Elliott injured his back when a horse he was exercising flipped him onto the Gulfstream Park rail. While sidelined, Elliott's weight ballooned up to 135 pounds. Thinking his riding days might be over, Elliott looked into becoming a blacksmith or a horse dentist.

"After doing both of those things for a short period of time, I knew it wasn't for me,'' Elliott said.

Elliott worked on getting his weight down and returned to riding in 1993. In 1996, Elliott got married. It lasted only a year. Elliott and his wife were drinkers and partiers and those activities took its toll on the relationship - and his career. In the late 1990's, Elliott was able to make a living in large part because he rode stakes winners Buffalo Dan and Jostle.

"Even though I was messing up, I was taking care of business pretty good in the beginning,'' said Elliott, who spent several years living in a house trailer in New Jersey. "I guess I was what they'd call a functioning alcoholic.''

In April 2000 Elliott was named to ride Jostle in the Grade 3 Comely Stakes at Aqueduct. When he took a routine physical, his blood pressure was found to be too high and he was not allowed to ride. Jostle, ridden by Edgar Prado, finished second that day. Elliott lost the mount. Later that year, Jostle would win the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks and Grade 1 Alabama under Mike Smith.

Hitting rock-bottom

In June, 2000, Elliott was alleged to have beat up his girlfriend at the time, Maria Albano. In August, Elliott hit his friend Alexander Kovalik with a pool cue and a wooden stool. The following year, Elliott pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and paid nearly $14,000 in Kovalik's medical costs. He also pleaded guilty to charges of simple assault and criminal mischief in regards to his altercation with Albano.

These indiscretions came to light after Elliott won the Kentucky Derby. Elliott falsely filled out his license application in Kentucky, Maryland and New York and has had to pay a total of $1,525 rin fines.

Following the altercation with Kovalik, Elliott checked himself into Caron Foundation, a rehabilitation clinic in Pennsylvania. He has been clean for almost four years, has won three riding titles at Philadelphia Park, and is engaged to Lauren Vannozzi, a former jockey.

"New friends, new lifestyle, and we got to concentrating here and doing good,'' said Elliott, summing up his reversal of fortune. "Now this horse has come along.''

Smarty Jones has Elliott within 1 1/2 miles of the ultimate high.