04/07/2004 12:00AM

Smarty Jones true Philadelphia story


PHILADELPHIA - Upon returning from San Antonio and the Final Four, I was greeted by an occurrence so strange that my mind suggested it just could not be real. If the Kentucky Derby were held this Saturday, the favorite probably would be a Pennsylvania-bred owned by a Philadelphia-area car dealer, trained by one of Philadelphia Park's leading trainers, and ridden by Philadelphia Park's leading jockey.

Let's think about this for a second. Philadelphia Park?

The Kentucky Derby and Philadelphia Park just don't seem to go together somehow. The "Pha" is a betting factory. It is open year-round. It is not likely to be mistaken for Saratoga or Keeneland. It is Aqueduct in the winter without the ambience.

Actually, the track's appearance has improved dramatically in recent years, but it is what it is. You want to bet on any track anywhere? The Pha is your place. You want to see quality racing or quality horses? That is why they have so many simulcasts.

One horse took more money than any other in the third and final Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool. And that horse made the first two starts of his career at Philadelphia Park.

Smarty Jones was no secret when he debuted last November. He was 11-10 and won by 7 3/4 lengths. He got an 84 Beyer - a very good debut number, but nothing that would get you thinking Derby.

Then, Smarty showed up in the Pennsylvania Nursery 13 days later. He won by 15 lengths. He got a 105 Beyer.

Trainer John Servis began to contemplate bigger things. Smarty Jones won the Count Fleet at Aqueduct on Jan. 3 by five lengths, getting a 97 Beyer. Servis made plans to go to Arkansas. Smarty won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 28 with a 95 Beyer. Smarty looked awesome in winning the March 20 Rebel Stakes while getting a 106 Beyer. He will be a big favorite in Saturday's Arkansas Derby.

Nothing has changed since Smarty made his debut. Servis still trains him. Stewart Elliott, the Pha's leading jockey year after year, still rides him. Roy Chapman, who owns Chapman Ford, still owns him. And the horse still wins.

Smarty Jones is 5 for 5. He has earned $278,355.

Can this really be happening? Is a horse with Philadelphia Park connections really good enough to win the Derby?

In a season of inconsistency, Smarty Jones has been the one constant. He shows up when he is supposed to. He runs like he is supposed to. And he ends up where he is supposed to end up - in the winner's circle.

But seriously? Philadelphia Park?

The last time anything like this happened at my home track was never. Isn't the Derby for Kentucky-breds conditioned by boutique trainers for blue-blood owners? What exactly is a Someday Farm homebred doing in the middle of all this?

Servis has been around the big time. His terrific filly Jostle won the Coaching Club American Oaks and the Alabama Stakes. He has a few owners with enough cash to be players at the sales. He knows the game.

As for the jockey, you will never feel cheated when you bet your money on Elliott. He is the consummate professional. His horse is always where you expect it to be during a race. There are no surprises. He has never been near the big time because he has never had a horse to get him there.

Smarty Jones is the horse racing version of Saint Joseph's, another wonderful Philadelphia story. Unless you have seen the horse or the team, you think this can't be for real. St. Joe's, seconds from the Final Four, proved how real it was. Smarty Jones can prove it, too. One more win and he will be in the Final Twenty.