01/28/2005 1:00AM

Smarty Jones ignited public imagination

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Smarty Jones stormed through Arkansas, Kentucky, and Maryland as he set up his bid for Triple Crown glory.

The moments are rare and fleeting, but when a 3-year-old colt captures the public's imagination and puts himself in position to the sweep the Triple Crown, it is a magical time. The fog of the past seven months might have left the mind a bit hazy about the Triple Crown of 2004, but the memories came flooding back last week, when Smarty Jones was named champion 3-year-old colt, and his trainer, John Servis, was honored by the Turf Publicists of America with its Big Sport of Turfdom Award.

Servis perfectly captured what meant to the sport when he commented last Monday afternoon that if Ghostzapper were named Horse of the Year, it would be a big story in the racing press, but if Smarty Jones won, it would be a big story in the general press.

Servis, who did little wrong in 2004, was right again. Ghostzapper, who was voted Horse of the Year, may have been the best racehorse of 2004, but there is no question that Smarty Jones was the most popular. Smarty Jones was an overwhelming choice as champion 3-year-old colt. He earned 265 out of a possible 274 votes. Turf champion Kitten's Joy got seven votes, and Triple Crown spoiler Birdstone received two.

The Philadelphia story of Servis, jockey Stewart Elliott, owners Roy and Pat Chapman, and the colt who began his career at The Pha resonated well outside racing's little cocoon.

Smarty Jones made the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Kentucky Derby, the first time that had happened in 21 years. His runaway victory in the Preakness - his eighth victory without a defeat - was equal parts breathtaking and chilling. So enamored was the public with Smarty Jones that a record crowd of more than 120,000 came to Belmont Park on June 5 to see his quest for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

The demands of the Triple Crown, a distance perhaps beyond his optimum, a quick middle half-mile, and a tenacious rival in Birdstone conspired to defeat Smarty Jones in the Belmont. The crowd, revved to a fever pitch when Smarty Jones took a three-length lead into the stretch, fell collectively silent.

There were many highlights to Smarty Jones's brief seven-month career, but none of it could have happened without the exacting training of Servis. He took Smarty Jones to Oaklawn Park for the winter to give Smarty Jones a chance to develop into a classic contender. Victories there in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby put Smarty Jones in position to claim a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park for winning those races and the Kentucky Derby, a check that Oaklawn owner Charles Cella was only too happy to give the Chapmans at Philadelphia Park a week after the Derby.

Servis put Smarty Jones on Lasix for the first time in the Derby. Although a Derby rookie, Servis shrewdly selected an advantageous outside post at the draw. He and foreman Big Bill Foster were attuned to Smarty Jones's every training requirement, including extensive gallops in lieu of weekly workouts.

The time came and went all too quickly. The Chapmans, who bred Smarty Jones at their Someday Farm in Pennsylvania, were wooed by several Kentucky farms and decided to cast their lot with Three Chimneys. Not long after, it was announced that Smarty Jones had an injury and would be retired to stud. Smarty Jones, a son of Elusive Quality out of the Smile mare I'll Get Along, retired with 8 wins in 9 starts and earnings of $7,613,155, and left behind an adoring public that loved what it saw and craved more.