Originally created 05/06/04

Derby champion returns to home



BENSALEM, Pa. - Sal Sinatra never had a day like this.

The racing secretary at Philadelphia Park was scurrying around the barn area Wednesday morning, trying his best to maintain order on the first day of the Smarty Jones onslaught.

"We're working on the fly," Sinatra said. "We've never really had anything like this. It's just overwhelming."

At a track known for claiming races instead of champions, the morning unfolded without a hitch in greeting its Kentucky Derby winner.

There was a "Welcome Home Smarty Jones" cake and a big sign on trainer John Servis' barn congratulating him and owners Pat and Roy Chapman.

And there was a rare concession by horsemen that allowed Smarty Jones to have the track all to himself on a chilly and sunny morning.

"At 8:30, the track will remain closed for 15 minutes to let Smarty Jones train," bellowed a voice over the loudspeakers near Barn 11.

Ever hear of anything like that before?

Never, said Servis.

"They came to me with the idea, and it's awesome," Servis said, still smiling even after the long drive home from Louisville, Kent. "It shows you how much Philly Park loves this horse."

Perhaps track officials were just being cautious with Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones, the first undefeated Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977 and the likely favorite for the Preakness on May 15.

Because the quality of horses here is not up to the standards at major tracks such as Belmont Park, Churchill Downs or Santa Anita, there's no telling what could happen with a track full cheap claimers running around with a Derby winner.

A media crowd totaling about 100 - unheard of for a track that doesn't even have a press box - showed up for Smarty's first day home in about three months. The Pennsylvania bred trained up to the Derby in Arkansas, winning the Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby before moving on to Kentucky.

So, on the morning after the Flyers advanced to the Eastern Conference final in NHL playoffs, it was Smarty Jones' turn to take center stage in Philly.

With exercise rider Pete van Trump aboard, Smarty Jones emerged from the barn right on time. With a pony escort, Smarty Jones walked along the dirt path and made his way onto the track as a crowd of 200 including track personnel and media members took up spots along the outer rail for a close-up view.

It was a far cry from the 140,000 fans who turned out for the Derby, but a huge number on a dark day at a track lucky to draw over 1,000 on race days.

On his first trip to the track since his rousing 23-length win over Lion Heart last Saturday, Smarty Jones walked a half-mile, then jogged a half-mile. Then it was off the track, over to the barn for a sponge bath in front of dozens of TV cameras, and then back into stall 38.

Servis liked what he saw.

"He was nice and calm early on, just walking and looking around," Servis said. "And when he did jog off he was hitting the ground really good. He was a little on the muscle coming off the track and he's been eating real well."

Servis said Smarty Jones would gallop today, but there won't be a final workout before the colt attempts to win the Preakness, setting up a Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes on June 5.

"The horse just ran a mile-and-a-quarter" in winning the Derby, Servis said. "He's dead fit. And he's coming right back in two weeks and, at that level, that's a lot to ask of a horse.

"Working him would be useless. He's already there. My big concern now is just keeping him happy. I want him to that stage where he's ready to go bear hunting with a switch. That's where I want him."