04/21/2004 12:00AM

A two-legged first-time starter


BENSALEM, Pa. - The veteran sat at a card table in the corner of the jocks' room and talked about riding the Kentucky Derby favorite.

"I get spoiled," he said. "This is my best horse. I can't imagine guys who never had that experience. It's a big difference. Night and day."

Jerry Bailey? Pat Day? Gary Stevens?

Try Stewart Elliott at a wobbly table at Philadelphia Park. At 38, Elliott has never ridden the Derby. Never competed in the Preakness, the Belmont, the Breeders' Cup. He has won more than 3,000 races, and no one knows who he is outside the Scrabble board of mid-Atlantic racetracks.

Smarty Jones will change all that. A Pennsylvania-bred son of Elusive Quality, Smarty Jones comes to Louisville on a 6 for 6 skein for trainer John Servis. Elliott has been aboard for every start, including the $1 million Arkansas Derby, which put horse and jockey in the middle of the Kentucky Derby fray.

Every once in a while a little-known jockey or two gets a chance to experience the big lights of the Derby. The horse's odds usually could win a college basketball game: Nick Santagata on Dr. Bobby A at 99-1 in 1990. Joe Deegan rode Wilder Than Ever in 1991, and the horse no doubt would have been a far longer price than 16-1 had he not been part of a five-horse mutuel field. Last year, Rosemary Homeister Jr. made her Derby debut on longshot Supah Blitz (43-1) while Tony Farina finished last on Brancusi (29-1). That's what makes Elliott so rare - he comes with a live opportunity.

"Last year, I rode here and then rushed home to watch the Derby," Elliott said. "To me, it was just another Derby, never thinking I would be in it next year or ever."

Through Tuesday, Elliott led the 2004 standings at Philadelphia Park by 43 winners. In four months at Philadelphia Park, his horses have earned $1,108,105. The purse of the Derby is $1 million. Toss in the $5 million bonus that Smarty Jones is eligible for after winning Oaklawn's Rebel and Arkansas Derby and, yeah, riding the Derby is a different world.

On Monday, Elliott rode four races at Philadelphia Park. Apache Corner finished second, the beaten favorite in a $6,500 claimer. Peaceful Morn ran evenly to finish third for a $16,000 claiming price. Righteous Struggle never threatened in a $20,000 claimer. Troy's Tramp tired to finish sixth in a $20,000 allowance race. Elliott's horses earned $5,470 for the day. There weren't enough people on hand to start a fight.

"After you ride a horse like Smarty Jones and you come back here and ride a maiden-eight - that's tough," Elliott said. "This is what you have here. Even to get to a place where you can ride a little better caliber horse, that would be nice."

Servis and Elliott competed against each other here in 1981, Servis as agent for apprentice Shannon Simpson and Elliott as the other hot bug rider at what was then called Keystone Racetrack. Servis became a trainer, he and Elliott became great friends, and they have been combining to win races ever since.

Loyalty can be fleeting, especially when it comes to good horses. Bailey, it seems, had his choice of half the Derby field before picking Wimbledon. Javier Santiago had two Derby horses two preps ago and now has none. Ramon Dominguez was undefeated on Tapit, lost the ride to Edgar Prado, then regained it after the horse was flat in the Florida Derby.

All the while, Servis, Elliott, and Roy and Patricia Chapman, the owners of Smarty Jones, have been cozier than an episode of "Little House on the Prairie." The subject of riders came up once.

"I talked to Mr. and Mrs. Chapman because it needed to be done," Servis said. "They said, 'John, if he's your man, then he's our man too.' "

Elliott knows there is no guarantee.

"I thought John would stick with me, but sure you think about that," Elliott said. "Every time I've run him, he's won. But you never know in this business."

Elliott has learned to temper the dreamer in him while never extinguishing it either. Anybody who survives in racing has learned this delicate formula.

His father, Dennis, rode races for 22 years, starting in Canada and finishing in Hong Kong. He trained horses at Keystone, owns a farm now in Florida, and surprised his son by showing up at the Arkansas Derby.

Elliott, who is single, said he will bring his mother, Myhill (it's Scottish), to the Derby. She is an assistant in her brother's racing stable in Canada and helped Elliott develop as a rider.

Elliott is confident he can win the Derby. He also can't sleep at night thinking about the chance.

It took 144 minutes of Japanese swordplay for Elliott to get some sleep the night before the Arkansas Derby. "I was in a motel room," Elliott said. "There was nothing on TV so I rented that samurai movie with Tom Cruise. I got into that. It was like a three-hour movie. That got me through the night."

"The Last Samurai" didn't win any Oscars, but it might have helped Elliott and Smarty Jones win the Arkansas Derby. Now, it's the Kentucky Derby.

"I probably won't sleep that good," Elliott said. "I'll try to get into a movie or something. Keep my mind off it. You might have 20 horses; he's got to go a mile and a quarter. Just try to save him, slow him up a little; not to get cooked, that's the biggest thing."