05/11/2004 12:00AM

Must have been the shoes

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BALTIMORE - The Smarty Jones bandwagon is officially full. Sorry, folks, the fire marshals have ruled. They're already dangling from the fenders and piled high on the roof, crammed in like circus clowns in a Volkswagen.

What began as a quiet, unassuming project with a little known 3-year-old last January has become nothing less than a once-in-a-lifetime racing phenomenon. Little wonder that fans and media everywhere are clamoring to share the moment, touch the hem of Smarty's garment, or simply catch a glimpse of their hero as he passes by in the crowd.

If sudden fame has shaken trainer John Servis and his crew, you wouldn't know it by watching them operate. And don't expect them to rattle anytime soon, not with a Preakness to win this Saturday.

In the meantime, everyone who has ever had a brush with Smarty Jones is putting a high polish on their memories. Never know when a book deal might come along. From his toddler days in Pennsylvania, to his early farm training in Florida, to his emergency hospitalization a year ago in New Jersey, Smarty Jones has left a trail of human handlers who are now wondering, "What did I know and when did I know it?"

One of the most recent converts is Colby Tipton, a 29-year-old farrier from Lexington, Ky., and a disciple of veteran Steve Norman, who was in the right place at the right time when Smarty Jones needed a new set of shoes the Monday of Derby Week.

Servis found Tipton through Dr. Bill Baker, a Kentucky-based vet. But before allowing Tipton to lay as much as a hoofpick on Smarty Jones, Servis first watched him shoe another filly in the barn. Tipton passed the audition.

"He's a good blacksmith," Servis said. "But the colt didn't need anything special. His feet have been good."

For the most part, farriers work in efficient anonymity, well below the radar. When a blacksmith's name makes the news, that usually means a headline horse is having a problem.

Fortunately, Tipton's assignment with Smarty Jones was a normal piece of work, performed under abnormal circumstances. Four old shoes off, bit of a trim, four new shoes on. Since Smarty Jones is known to be a handful, both on the track and under the shed row, Tipton was asked how Smarty Jones behaved for a shoeing from a stranger?

"Couldn't ask for a better horse to work on," Tipton said.

But what else is he going to say?

"No, really," Tipton said. "He was very easy to work with. He's got a nice, solid foot. He has an ideal body, mind, and heart, and feet that match his body.

"Some people might say he's too little," Tipton said. "But he's perfect, as far as I'm concerned. Deer can outrun buffalo every day of the week. What I love about him is that he's got a 'getting ready to get into something' look in his eyes all the time."

Smarty Jones wears size five NoVibe horseshoes (the ones with the yellow pads) that retail at $12.50 for a box of two. Tipton charges between $100 and $125 for a shoeing session.

"He's got what I'd call a marbled foot," Tipton said, referring to a mix of dark and light hoof. "There was nothing extreme as far as whoever had worked on him before. He had plenty of foot to work with, so I could adjust to how I like to do it. There were no quarter cracks, no thrush in in the frog, none of the kinds of things you'll see on heavy-duty runners like him."

In fact, it was the mob of media surrounding Smarty Jones that threw Tipton for a loop.

"They were making me more nervous than working with the horse," he said with a laugh. "But as soon as I picked up a foot to knife out the frog, it was just a foot to me. You can't treat it special, or you're sure to mess it up. I couldn't help thinking, though, that pictures of the top of my head and my hind end were going to be seen all over the world."

Tipton spent Derby Day checking with clients in the stable area and then wandering through the infield. When the rains came, he headed for a friend's house to watch the race on TV, but traffic was so bad he never made it.

"There I was, in a pick-up truck with a friend, listening to the Derby on the radio," Tipton said. "And it was the most exhilarating feeling. My hair was standing on end. When the announcer said, 'Here comes Smarty Jones!' I thought, 'Oh, my God, he's gonna do it!'"

Just like that, Tipton could lay claim to a small piece of freshly minted history, wrapped in the satisfaction of a job well done. According to Servis, he might have Tipton take a look at Smarty Jones this week at Pimlico, just to make sure those shoes are still golden.

"I tried not to charge them when I put them on," Tipton added. "I was willing to let them have the shoes until the Monday after the Derby. But they insisted on paying me. For some reason they wanted those shoes. I guess they must have known something."