08/03/2017 12:26PM

Hovdey: With Smarten, Woody took a smart angle

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His van was always fueled and the motor running, next stop who knows where, the consummate Road Warrior before Mad Max borrowed the name. Never mind that he was rated no better than the fifth-best 3-year-old of his generation. Smarten, a horse for all zip codes, had his people crying all the way to the bank.

A son of Cyane bred and owned by Jim Ryan’s Ryehill Farm, Smarten died in Maryland in 2003 at the ripe old age of 27. His legacy as the winner of four rich derbies spread across the heart of middle America in 1979 makes him the patron saint of opportunistic owners and trainers everywhere, who take advantage of a racing landscape beyond the Triple Crown littered with tempting purses and vulnerable fields.

Were Smarten a 3-year-old of 2017, he would no doubt be front and center on Saturday at Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort, where the Grade 3 West Virginia Derby will be run for a purse of $750,000. A field of 11 is entered, led by Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee and Belmont Stakes third-place finisher Patch.

The other nine in the West Virginia Derby gave the whole Triple Crown a pass, which is exactly what Woody Stephens did with Smarten in 1979.

“He was dodging Spectacular Bid,” said trainer Phil Gleaves, who traveled hither and yon with Smarten as his exercise rider. “Woody knew he couldn’t beat Spectacular Bid, but there was money out there to be won.”

And Spectacular Bid, as good as he was, could only be in one place at a time. The closest Smarten ever got to Spectacular Bid that season was probably during the first week of June at Belmont Park, where Bid was getting ready for his Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes and Smarten was enjoying a little home cooking between road games.

Then again, they almost all were road games. Smarten made 17 starts in 1979 at 13 different racetracks. During one stretch of five straight wins, he took the Illinois Derby at Sportsman’s Park, the Pennsylvania Derby at Keystone (now Parx), the Ohio Derby at Thistledown, and the American Derby at Arlington Park.

By then, Spectacular Bid had gone bust in the Belmont, and the media were looking for a new face. Bill Nack of Sports Illustrated weighed in on Smarten after the Arlington race, referring to him as “the star of the liveliest sideshow in the game.”

“Stephens’ plotting of his career is a textbook example of how to train, manage and campaign a 3-year-old who, early in the year, appears to be a cut below the very best of his generation,” wrote Nack. “Conditioning draws the most attention … but a more revealing test of a trainer’s aptitude lies in how he manages a horse’s campaign, whether he spots him right or overmatches him.”

There have been other noteworthy 3-year-olds who made their mark by taking full advantage of the sprawling stakes menu while avoiding the division leaders.

Lost Code sidestepped the Triple Crown in 1987, leaving the headlines to Alysheba and Bet Twice while churning out wins in the Alabama Derby, Illinois Derby, Ohio Derby, St. Paul Derby, and Arlington Classic. Olympio was not exactly avoiding Hansel and Strike the Gold in 1991 – he did try them in the Preakness – but after that, he racked up serious prize money by winning the Minnesota Derby, the American Derby, then later a division of the Hollywood Derby on grass.

This year’s pledge to the Smarten fraternity seems to be Irap, owned by Paul Reddam and trained by Doug O’Neill. The son of Tiznow was a maiden when he shocked the Blue Grass Stakes in April, a race that gave him a right to at least try the Kentucky Derby. But Irap never ran a step over a nasty Churchill Downs surface, which allowed his team to take a breath and plot a summer course of least resistance.

Irap responded by taking the $500,000 Ohio Derby on June 24 in a thriller over Girvin, then came right back to cruise in the $500,000 Indiana Derby on July 15. The West Virginia Derby would have seemed ripe for Irap, a horse very much on his game, after which he likely would be a candidate for the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park in September.

But Irap was not entered for Saturday’s race – Reddam and O’Neill will be represented in West Virginia by B Squared, third last time out in the Los Alamitos Derby – and instead will be pointed for the Travers Stakes against the best the division has to offer on Aug. 26.

“He’s earned a shot,” O’Neill said in the wake of Irap’s Indiana score.

Jumping from the steady paydays in the little derbies to the big stage is straight out of the Smarten playbook. Lost Code did it in 1987 when he stepped up to the Haskell Invitational and threw a scare into Bet Twice and Alysheba, finishing third in a three-horse photo. After Smarten won the Marylander Handicap at Bowie for his fifth straight win in 1979, Stephens thought the time was right to try the Travers.

“It came up muddy, and he loved it,” Gleaves recalled. “Unfortunately, General Assembly loved it more and won off by himself. But our horse was second, and beat good ones doing it.”

Very good ones. Private Account, Davona Dale, and Screen King all finished behind Smarten that day. He ended the year with earnings of $638,433, behind only Spectacular Bid and the versatile Golden Act among 3-year-olds.

“We were locked at the hip for almost a full year,” Gleaves said. “Me and his groom, Ben Riley. Smarten was just an old-school racehorse. Bear in mind, in the three weeks or a month between winning all those derbies, he would work five-eighths, then a good mile, then blow out for the next one.”

And ship both ways. Don’t forget the ship. Smarten must have been one of those travelers who nods off on takeoff and doesn’t wake up until the wheels touch down.

“He was a very laid-back horse,” Gleaves said. “He never let anything bother him, although I don’t recall us ever having a real bad travel experience.”

Never? Through a season of 17 starts? Up and down the Mid-Atlantic corridor, back and forth across the upper Midwest?

“Come to think of it, there was the time in Chicago,” Gleaves said. “The van got us to the airport – Midway, I believe it was – but way too early for our flight, and they couldn’t wait around.

“So, they unloaded the pallet with Smarten onto the tarmac and left us there,” Gleaves added. “For two hours, he calmly watched planes take off and land until ours finally arrived. He was just that cool.”