04/25/2004 11:00PM

Hopes high in Smarty World


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Big Bill Foster can picture the scene. It is late Saturday afternoon - early evening, really - and the traditional winner's circle ceremonies following the running of the 130th Kentucky Derby are winding down. The Smarty Jones team has been praised to the heavens by everyone from NBC's Bob Costas to Kentucky's Gov. Ernie Fletcher. The Derby trophy has been hoisted on high by trainer John Servis. The Chapmans, Roy and Pat, beam proudly as owners and breeders of the pugnacious colt, while jockey Stewart Elliott, at the age of 38, has become an overnight sensation.

"Thanks very much," goes Foster's scenario. "Now please excuse us. The man we really want to see is over there with the check."

Foster is the Servis stable foreman, with 15 years on the job, and the man he hopes they will be dealing with after the Derby is Charles Cella of Oaklawn Park, who is poised to fork over $5 million in bonus money if Smarty Jones can add the Kentucky Derby to his earlier wins in the Rebel Handicap and the Arkansas Derby down in Hot Springs.

Foster smiles. It has come to this. Just a few days and two tough minutes between a self-described bunch of "little guys" and the biggest single payday in the history of Thoroughbred racing. It can happen.

It can happen because the people surrounding Smarty Jones walk around with an eerie air of unshakable confidence. From Servis to Foster to groom Mario Ariagas and rider Pete Van Trump, they never brag. They talk no trash. They try to stick to the facts, and the facts are simple. They can't imagine Smarty Jones losing a race because they wouldn't know what it would look like if he did.

The greater racing world is convinced that this is the Equal Opportunity Derby. Ask around. By the time the field of 20 is set, there will be 14 trainers who know they can win and another three who think they'll be one-two, with just a little luck.

The difference is, every one of the Derby camps - save one - must explain something away. A so-so race, a training gap, a loss of time here and there, a disappointing Beyer Speed Figure. Go stall to stall and there will be explanatory footnotes attached.

Not so in Smarty World. No imagination is required. He is 6 for 6 and still going strong, with all the seasoning any horse will need in this age of eggshell training.

"He's won four races around two turns," noted Foster, the son of a successful appliance salesman from Uniontown, Pa. "How many of the others can say that? He's the kind of athlete who will always have good tactical position. Always be where you want him. He'll rate, and he's light on his feet. Some of these others - The Cliff's Edge, Friends Lake, Wimbledon - they're good colts, but if something gets in their way, gets them a step off stride, that's it. Not this colt. He floats."

And pulls. Foster takes the shank himself and walks Smarty Jones after his morning exercise, and it doesn't take long for the colt to recharge. Pete Van Trump, aboard when Smarty gallops or jogs, shakes his head and rubs his shoulder when he ponders a routine morning in the irons.

"This horse breaks my back every day," said Van Trump, a 39-year-old Missourian who used to ride Brahma bulls. "We'll get out there and my friggin' arms will start to burn. I could go to snatching at him and fighting him. But that's not the way he wants it. And you know something? You've got to do the right thing for the horse, not for yourself."

Van Trump is the son of a Navy Seal who weighs in at around 165 pounds, which means Smarty Jones spends most of his training time swinging a heavier bat than most other top horses his age. (Van Trump recalls asking Nick Zito for a job years ago. Zito's reply: "We ain't got elephants here, son.")

Even Servis will pause, guessing at Van Trump's weight and hefting his tack - a complex network of three-ring bit, draw reins, nose band, and German martingale - then wondering aloud just how much his powerful little colt is carrying each day.

"Would you feel comfortable putting a lighter rider on this horse?" Van Trump asks.

"No," the trainer replies. "And the weight hasn't bothered him yet."

Anyway, Van Trump has family history. While working for the late Robert Camac, he was a regular aboard I'll Get Along, the dam of Smarty Jones.

"She wasn't as tough as this colt," Van Trump said. "Pretty good-sized, about 16 hands. Kind of a nasty mare. She'd kick you, bite you. Didn't like nobody messing with her."

It was a big step this winter, venturing forth from their backyard at Philly Park to the mysterious wilds of Oaklawn. Servis did not insist his top hands make the journey - they had a full barn to deal with back home - but both Foster and Van Trump signed on for the ride.

"I keep thinking about all the 2-year-olds we see come in, year after year, thinking one of them might be the one," Foster said. "Then this colt comes along.

"I don't feel like I'm 64, but I am," he added. "There was no way I was going to miss this."