05/03/2004 12:00AM

Perfect day for Smarty party


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Servis couldn't wait to hit the road. He'd been away from home the better part of three months - pining for his family, his bed, his remote control - and now that he had done what he'd set out to do, it was Philadelphia or bust.

"I'm driving," he said as he tied up loose ends at Churchill Downs, "and it'll be great. Up into the mountains of West Virginia, with no cell phone signal for miles and miles. It's beautiful . . . and peaceful."

There was also a chance, somewhere along Interstate 79, that Servis finally would come to terms with what he had achieved the day before, on a rainswept first Saturday in May. To that point, he had tried everything short of electric shock therapy or hypnosis, and still he could not bring himself to believe he had just won the Kentucky Derby with Smarty Jones.

"I'm not kidding," Servis told a steady stream of Sunday morning well-wishers. "It hasn't sunk in yet. I'm not sure when it will."

When it does - perhaps somewhere in the deep green forests of his native West Virginia - Servis can pull over, lay on the horn, and burst with pride over a job well done. After all, it was his ambitious plan, cooked up last fall with the advice and consent of owners Pat and Roy Chapman, that unfurled without a serious hitch and landed them all in the history books as the team behind a rare undefeated Derby winner.

From race to race, beginning last November at Philadelphia Park, winding through wintry New York and the Southern hospitality of Hot Springs, tough little Smarty Jones let Servis and his crew make all the right moves, quietly building a case until all that was left to chance was the luck of the draw and the clouds in the sky.

They even got that right.

It was a little after 4 p.m. last Saturday when a Midwest storm of biblical proportions came barreling in thick and black from the southwest, hitting Churchill Downs with an old-fashioned, gopher-drowning gully-washer that turned everything a loud, blurry gray.

The backstretch gap at the mouth of the mile chute became a rushing, impassable canal. "For the love of God, save my Pringles!" cried a Derby picnicker as the helpless container floated away. In the western end of the infield, far from the upscale hospitality tents, a sudden lake was formed from suspicious sources - drainage problems, perhaps? - that should have required a sign reading "Swim at Your Own Risk."

But this was a Derby Day infield crowd, numb and delerious by turns, so no one was surprised to see any number of brave, shirtless alpha males dive and slide through the soupy brown muck.

Back in the Servis shed row, each sheet of rain brought a knowing grin. As it turns out, Smarty's middle name was mud. "I loved it when it rained in the morning, and I loved it when the big one came down in the afternoon," said foreman Bill Foster, a key part of Team Smarty. "Then, when it rained that last time, I was sorry I didn't bet more."

Foster was talking about the final squall that hit just as the horses were being saddled for the Derby. By then, the fans didn't care, and the 18 runners were hardly fazed. But the paddock swells scattered as if hit by acid, beating hasty exits. Churchill Downs, remember, does not allow umbrellas.

Thanks to last week's court-ordered reversal of a state commission ruling, however, Kentucky now allows for advertising on jockey pants, and fans were treated to a grand array of product placements as the Derby field circled. Among the brand names displayed were Revolution Air, Wrangler jeans, and Trim Spa, touted as the ephedra-free diet pill that helped Anna Nicole Smith lose 47 pounds. Oh, the irony.

"For the first time in Derby history, there were jockeys not lucky enough to finish one-two-three who went home with more than just a hundred-dollar mount fee," said Kent Desormeaux, a longtime endorsement advocate, after riding Imperialism to a game Derby third.

The Kentucky Horse Racing Authority's attorney had maintained that decorated pants could distract stewards from sorting through the tangle of horses and riders sometimes involved in inquiries. (Pause for laughter.) For the record, the pants of winning jockey Stewart Elliott were adorned only with the patch of the Jockeys' Guild, a simple statement that must have helped the judges parse a typically thrilling first Derby turn.

That is when Quintons Gold Rush (Trim Spa) and Pollard's Vision (Hypnotiq Liqueur) applied pressure on Smarty Jones from the outside, in turn forcing Read the Footnotes (Louisville Slugger), and Minister Eric (rain pants without logo) to steady along the inside.

At the time, Lion Heart was cleanly on the lead. But it was Elliott's forthright move with Smarty Jones to establish his ground - reminiscent of the first-turn clinic conducted by Gary Stevens with Silver Charm in 1997 - that made all the difference. With the cool of a guy who already had ridden some 21,000 races, Elliott entered the backstretch in an ideal position. From there, it became a only matter of when to go after Lion Heart.

Elliott's grace under pressure was characteristic of the entire Smarty entourage. Now they will move squarely into the spotlight at Pimlico, where Smarty Jones has a date in the Preakness Stakes on May 15, "as long as he still has something in the tank," said Servis.

In the meantime, Servis said farewell to new friends and admirers at Churchill Downs, leaving town a hero, and uttering a promise never heard from the lips of a Derby-winning trainer before:

"Hey," waved Servis, "see you at Philly, or maybe Mountaineer!"