03/22/2004 1:00AM

Heading toward Arkansas Derby, Smarty Jones keeps getting better

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Horses develop at their own pace, and trainer John Servis loves how the undefeated Smarty Jones is coming along mentally heading into the biggest test of his career, the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 10.

Smarty Jones is pointing for the Grade 2 race after turning in a 3 1/4-length win in the $200,000 Rebel Stakes on Saturday. He improved his career record to 5 for 5 and earned a career-best 106 Beyer Speed Figure.

But it's not just his race record that has been improving. Servis has seen Smarty Jones, a playful, high-energy horse, become more professional over the past few weeks. From what he has seen, Servis believes the horse will continue to move forward heading into his graded-stakes debut in the Arkansas Derby.

"I know that watching him and the way he's maturing, he's going to improve on his own," Servis said. "Just the maturity factor is going to be a big part of him. You could see he settled a lot nicer [Saturday]. He was still sitting turning for home. He's coming around. He's starting to really put it together."

Stewart Elliott, who has ridden Smarty Jones in each of his starts, was pleased with how quickly the fast colt came back to him early in the Rebel when the pace was slowed down by favorite Purge. Smarty Jones tracked Purge through six furlongs in 1:12, overtook him in the stretch, and went on to cover the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.

It was the fastest running of the Rebel since 1987, when Demons Begone won the race in 1:41.40. But fast times are nothing new for Smarty Jones. His time of 1:41.40 for the mile and 70-yard Count Fleet was the second-fastest time in 21 runnings of the race at the distance. It was held over the inner track at Aqueduct in January.

Prior to that race, Smarty Jones won the seven-furlong Pennsylvania Futurity in 1:21.80 and earned a 105 Beyer, tied for the top number given to a 2-year-old in 2003.

Servis said things have gone "textbook" this meet for Smarty Jones. The horse is now the lone 3-year-old eligible for a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn that rewards the winner of the Rebel, Arkansas Derby, and Kentucky Derby.

He is also one of the few 3-year-olds out there with three two-turn stakes wins. And that is not the only exclusive company Smarty Jones keeps. As a Pennsylvania-bred based at Oaklawn, he is following the Kentucky Derby path of Lil E. Tee, who won the race in 1992 for trainer Lynn Whiting.

Smarty Jones races for Roy and Pat Chapman, who bred him in the name of their Someday Farm. He was raised at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla., and his younger days were overseen by Bridlewood general manager George Isaacs.

"When George sent the horse from the farm, he said the horse was a quality horse," said Servis. "He knew early on that the horse was a quality horse."

Smarty Jones started his career at Philadelphia Park, and is now based at Oaklawn. He is a son of Elusive Quality and the mare I'll Get Along, a multiple stakes winner by Smile.

Big excuse for Shake You Down

Shake You Down, who was fifth and last as the 2-5 favorite in the $50,000 Hot Springs on Sunday, was found after the race to have mucus in his air passages.

"The vet said it was a four out of five," said Scott Lake, who trains Shake You Down. "He really had a huge excuse."

Shake You Down broke slowly in the Hot Springs, dueled on the lead, and was overtaken. He finished 8 3/4 lengths behind the winner, Skeet.

Shake You Down, considered one of the nation's top sprinters, was prepping for the Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet at Oaklawn on April 8. Lake said the horse would be treated over the next few days, and a decision will be made about his status for the Count Fleet. He will remain at Oaklawn.

Mr. Jester, Pro Prado to Ark. Derby

Mr. Jester, who finished sixth as second choice in the Rebel, will make his next start in the Arkansas Derby, said his trainer, Steve Wren.

"No excuses," Wren said. "He came out good. I can't take anything away from Smarty Jones. He ran a hell of a race. I just didn't show up."

Mr. Jester raced closer to the pace than usual and drifted out through the stretch. Going into the Rebel, he had finished no worse than second in seven starts, with his biggest win coming in the $1 million Delta Jackpot.

Wren said he might experiment with a different bit on Mr. Jester for an upcoming work. Kent Desormeaux, who rode the colt for the first time Saturday, has the mount in the Arkansas Derby.

Pro Prado came out of his third-place finish in the Rebel in good order and is set to run next in the Arkansas Derby, said his trainer, Bob Holthus.

Pro Prado was coupled with Proper Prado, who finished fifth. Holthus said Proper Prado will be pointed for the $75,000 Northern Spur Breeders' Cup, also on April 10.

* Purge, who was second as the favorite in the Rebel, was scheduled to fly to Kentucky on Tuesday for trainer Todd Pletcher. The Rebel was his two-turn debut, and he is a candidate to return to Oaklawn for the Arkansas Derby.

* Trainer Morris Nicks and his son Ralph Nicks, a private trainer for Team Valor, teamed to win four of the 11 races on the card Sunday. Ralph Nicks won the second with Bodgiteer ($11.20), while Morris Nicks won the third with Smilin Minister ($8.20), the fourth with Cat of Tomorrow ($8), and the eighth with Go Legs Go ($5.40).