05/12/2004 11:00PM

A little road trip to Baltimore


BALTIMORE - "Tally ho!" said John Servis, throwing a leg over the pony known as Butterscotch and grabbing hold of Smarty Jones. "Watch out for that boulder."

Smarty Jones and his rider, Pete Van Trump, deftly sidestepped a rock poking through the sandy path outside their Philly Park barn, then commenced their final, deadly serious training session in preparation for the Preakness Stakes. The Kentucky Derby winner still had a hundred miles to travel - plus the 9 1/2 furlongs on Saturday afternoon - but if there were anything ruffling his normal, untroubled demeanor, he was hiding it well.

Then again, Smarty Jones is accustomed to a certain amount of activity. The Philadelphia Park headquarters of the Servis operation can be as busy as a Delta hub. Horses come and go all the time, seeking their fortunes at any number of available racetracks.

"John picked the wrong week to bring the Derby winner back here," said assistant trainer Maureen Donnelly with a playful grin. "Just today we've got one going to Penn National, two to Atlantic City, and then you-know-who going to Pimlico."

No-frills Philly Park, with its aluminum-sided warehouse barns and its vast expanses of backstretch concrete, is the ultimate Thoroughbred switching station, centrally located and interstate-close for free-ranging horsemen who carry a half-dozen condition books in their heads.

"From that standpoint, it's a great place to train," Servis said. "Even so, I've had people tell me they'd loved to give me horses, but they don't want them at Philadelphia Park. I've got one guy who would be happy if his stalls were a hundred yards outside the stable gate."

As living proof that a fine horse can come from anywhere, Smarty Jones makes Philadelphia Park look good, especially on a quiet, steamy Wednesday morning before the Preakness when the colt had the racetrack to himself.

It is the open gallops that make Smarty Jones, with the 170-pound Van Trump perfectly centered - "carrying his own weight," in the parlance of good riders - and Smarty greedy for the ground, each stride like a hard rep on the free weights.

On Wednesday morning he did a solid mile and a half, so full of energy that at various points it could have been mistaken for a breeze. Servis watched from atop Butterscotch at the wire, while high above, a helicopter from local CBS affiliate WKYW circled the track. Servis thought it was monitoring the nearby expressway. Then his cell phone rang.

"It was a woman in the helicopter," he said. "She saw three horses down here" - an outrider was stationed in the chute - "and she wanted to know which one was Smarty. I told her, since the other two are standing still, Smarty Jones would be the one moving at a high rate of speed."

Two lessons were learned: 1) Smartymania was still going strong, even at 5:45 on a weekday morning, and 2) John Servis has given his phone number to way too many people.

Once his colt cooled out from the gallop, Servis took a deep breath. "That's it," he said. "His last gallop. Now I'll just be able to toy with him for a couple days down at Pimlico."

Getting there was a snap. As noted, Servis horses ship all the time. Yes, Smarty Jones was the first one going to the Preakness, but that did not change a thing.

Ronnie Bradford, a longtime Servis associate, did the hauling in one of his spiffy Kenworth Air-Glide vans, vintage 2001, with a six-horse capacity. Smarty got a three-stall box suite, facing the rear, with a view of both his groom, Mario Arriaga, and Butterscotch, whose real name is Scotch With a Twist.

At 10:40 a.m., with barn foreman Bill Foster riding shotgun, the van passed through the Philadelphia Park stable gate and set off along tree-lined Galloway Road toward the interstate. First, though, provisions were required. The trip figured to take more than two hours. So, for a precious five minutes, the 2004 Kentucky Derby winner - the pride of Bensalem, Pa. - was available for viewing in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven at the corner of Street Road and Brookwood.

"That's Smarty Jones?" marveled a woman, emerging from the store. "In there?"

Foster climbed back into the cab with soft drinks and water (no red vines for Smarty?) and they were off, down I-95, past downtown Philadelphia, along the banks of the Delaware, over the wide Susquehanna, and across two state lines before arriving, just past 2 p.m., at the Preakness barn.

A little while later, after a bath and a walk around the shed row, Smarty Jones was led by Foster to a wood chip path where Arriaga hosed off the colt's feet. Only a security guard pressed close, admiring her charge. Foster was asked how Smarty handled the trip.

"How does it look like he handled it?" the foreman said, deferring to the horse. Smarty Jones answered with a burnished chestnut coat and a playful toss of his head. Then he was still, savoring a welcome breeze. "What do you think he'd do if I let this drop?" Foster added, dangling the shank.

Smarty, the consummate pro, merely shrugged. The message was clear. "Very funny, big guy. But if you want, you can turn me loose on Saturday."

Tally ho.