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Smarty Jones had it, right from the start
Larry McKibben recalls watching while a farrier tapped in the last nail on the chestnut colt's hoof. It was July 2003, and the colt was getting a final set of racing shoes at Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla., before heading north to launch his career as a racehorse.
The colt was one of 60 juveniles last summer at Bridlewood, where people such as McKibben, the farm's assistant trainer, teach young horses to carry a saddle, then a rider, and finally to break from a gate.
"When the blacksmith was here that last time, he took the old shoes off," McKibben, 60, said. "For some reason, I just reached down and picked up the old shoes."
Those shoes are still in the Bridlewood office, and their value has increased immeasurably because they belonged to Smarty Jones. The Bridlewood crew expected a good bit out of the chestnut colt, but even they are surprised to find their small but hardy pupil on the verge of joining Seattle Slew as an undefeated Triple Crown winner.
"When he was close to going to the racetrack, I called Mr. Chapman and he asked me what I thought," said Bridlewood general manager George Isaacs, referring to Roy and Pat Chapman, the colt's owners and breeders. "I said, 'I think this is the horse you've been waiting for.' But never in our wildest dreams did we think he'd win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness."
Smarty Jones was foaled on Feb. 28, 2001, at the Chapmans' Someday Farm, a modest property near New Hope, Pa. His was an uneventful birth, according to Someday Farm's manager, Debbie Given.
Given, 49, worked for the Chapmans for nine years before moving to the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, a prominent equine hospital. She was present when Smarty Jones was foaled, a product of the Smile mare I'll Get Along and the stallion Elusive Quality.
"It was a very easy delivery because he was a rather small foal, and his mother was pretty big," Given said.
From an early age, Smarty Jones showed his toughness - and his speed. "He was ornery, kind of an in-your-face baby," Given recalled. "He was very, very curious and was always following me around to see what I was doing. I never thought of him as anything spectacular when he was a foal, but he had natural speed even then. He was turned out with another colt who was much larger than he was, but he could run circles around him."
Isaacs got his first view of Smarty Jones in early January 2002, when the colt arrived in Ocala known only as "I'll Get Along - '01." The Chapmans sold the majority of their bloodstock soon after their trainer, Bob Camac, and his wife were murdered in 2001. But they decided to hang on to the Elusive Quality colt in part, Pat Chapman said, because she liked the look in his eye.
"They had told me they were thinking of getting out of the business," said Isaacs, who is now handling breeding-rights negotiations on the Chapmans' behalf. "But they had pretty much determined that they wanted to give this horse a try, and they just needed some encouragement. They told us they'd send him here, and we said we'd evaluate him."
The Chapmans sent Smarty Jones to Bridlewood with one other horse, a Halo's Image colt named Some Image. Both colts had been foaled at around the same time at the Chapmans' farm in Pennsylvania, but the Halo's Image colt was significantly larger. Smarty Jones appeared at first glance to be an average sort of horse, but he had unusually good conformation and a highly athletic walk.
From January 2002 until late October that year, Smarty Jones was in the hands of Henry Dallas, Bridlewood's yearling manager.
"I thought he was a nice horse," said Dallas, 44. "It didn't take long for him to figure things out, and then he'd just go right on. He was the kind that could fool you: one day he'd be good, and one day not. He was a tough, aggressive, good-feeling colt, and I liked him. Sometimes, if you pay attention to one, you'll see a little different look in his eye, and he had a look that said, 'I'm a tough man.' "
Tough but pleasant, according to Jorge Rodriguez, Smarty Jones's groom for the colt's 18 months at Bridlewood. "We were friends," Rodriguez said. "I was the only one to brush him, and I never had any problems."
As a yearling, Smarty Jones first showed signs of what the Bridlewood team now theorizes was claustrophobia.
"He wasn't easy to break," said Milton Hendry, 62, the farm's trainer. The breaking process involves saddling and eventually mounting a yearling while a handler guides the young horse around the inside of a stall, a procedure that usually goes smoothly. But when the Bridlewood team tried it with Smarty Jones, he planted his feet and refused to move.
"When we tried to turn him to the right, he would lock up, and then he'd start running backwards or try to rear up," Hendry said. "We fooled with him like that for about three days, and then we decided we'd move him out to the shed row, and he was fine once we got him out in the shed row. He didn't like to be confined."
He showed signs of claustrophobia again after he was broken and moved to the farm's training barn in the fall of 2002, about two months before he turned 2.
"The first time we put him in the gate here, he broke out in a big sweat right quick," said Hendry. "When he was in the gate that day for us, he never did anything wrong, but you always knew he might."
In retrospect, Hendry wonders if the horse's claustrophobia was responsible the starting gate incident at Philadelphia Park on July 27, 2003, in which Smarty Jones reared up while schooling and hit the left side of his head on a metal bar. The colt fractured the bone above his eye and he was lucky not to lose it.
Other than that quirk, Hendry and Dallas agreed, Smarty Jones was a sensible colt, a characteristic that likely has helped him weather the demands of the Triple Crown trail.
But what put him on the Triple Crown trail in the first place was talent.
"You never know what you've got until you take one to the racetrack," Hendry said.
Bridlewood found out on the morning of March 25, 2003, when exercise rider Juan Rodriguez dropped Smarty Jones onto the rail at Bridlewood's training track and sent him on his first quarter-mile breeze. The result was a revelation.
"He worked two seconds faster than the next-fastest horse, and that one was one of the top five we had," Hendry recalled. "There were 40 or 50 horses that worked that day, and nothing came close to Smarty Jones."
Hendry and McKibben, his assistant, had watched the work together.
"We just looked at each other and said, 'Oof! This is a tough little horse!'" McKibben said. "Juan was just sitting still, and the colt was motoring."
The colt's name at that time was actually not Smarty Jones. It was Get Along. But two days after that first breeze, the Chapmans applied to change his name to Smarty Jones, after Pat Chapman's mother - Mildred Jones, nicknamed Smarty - a sentimental indication that this was not just any horse.
Exercise rider Rodriguez, who is Jorge Rodriguez's uncle, said through a translator that Smarty Jones "just had a lot of muscle. He was tough to gallop, and he took a strong arm. He didn't get professional until we started to let him do some works, and then he got run on his mind."
"After that first work, I knew then that I had to protect him from himself," Hendry said. "He could run, and he knew he could run, and that kind of horse can either burn himself out or break himself down.
"The horse hit the ground real soft," he added. "Standing in the viewing stand at the track, you could hear the other horses go by, and they'd make a heavier sound: pom, pom, pom. But this horse was more like flick, flick, flick."
At this point, there would have been plenty of takers for the talented juvenile, but Isaacs didn't urge the Chapmans to sell. "Mr. Chapman asked me if we liked this colt, and I said we did," Isaacs said.
The Chapmans kept him. Their hopes of winning some good races at Philadelphia Park were temporarily derailed when Smarty Jones injured his head in the starting gate just weeks after being sent north to trainer John Servis. On Nov. 9, after spending time at a New Jersey equine clinic to treat his injuries, Smarty Jones finally made his first start.
"I found out what his name was the first time he ran," McKibben said. "Milt came down and told me, 'Hey, Larry, Smarty Jones is in today.' I said, 'Smarty Jones? Who's Smarty Jones?' We had always called him Cowboy."
The colt got that nickname at Bridlewood when he developed shoe boils - swollen knots behind each elbow, caused by the pressure of a horse's shoes when he lies down with his front legs curled underneath himself. To prevent the boils from recurring, the staff fitted Smarty Jones's front ankles with rubber rings that kept his feet away from his elbows when he was lying down. The staff jokingly referred to the rings as the colt's cowboy boots, and the nickname stuck.
Cowboy has since grown up, and now everyone knows the name Smarty Jones. But the people at Bridlewood would like to make one more change, this time an addition, on June 5: "Smarty Jones, Triple Crown winner."