Originally created 06/03/04

Smarty Jones' original trainer not forgotten



BENSALEM, Pa. -- Gene Camac dropped to his knees in the middle of a restaurant as he watched the Kentucky Derby, pleading for a little divine intervention.

"Push him, Bobby! Push him," Camac yelled at the screen and into a cell phone, with his wife on the other end.

When Smarty Jones crossed the finish line first, Gene Camac knew his brother, Bob, was somewhere smiling.

When his brother was praised after the race, Gene cried from elation, his pain fading for the first time since Bob was murdered, along with his wife, by his stepson in 2001.

"It brings back a lot of sad things, but a lot of good things," Gene said. "We know Bob's involved someway, somewhere."

Gene and those close to his brother had been unable to shake the tragedy that nearly forced owners Pat and Roy Chapman out of the business and give up on Smarty Jones.

Now, there is a sense of a pride that Bob was responsible for the horse who can become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 with a win in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

"To think that my brother was part of this is overwhelming," said Gene, who lives in Bear, Del. "He knew the breeding book like a bible. I think he knew everyone's mom and dad in the country without even looking it up."

Bob suggested the Chapmans breed I'll Get Along with the stallion Elusive Quality. On Feb. 28, 2001, Smarty Jones was born.

The Chapmans trusted Bob, whom they hired in the early 1990s and gave horses to run, mostly at Philadelphia Park. He worked with horses his entire life, starting as child when he walked them for two uncles in Atlantic City and Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

The Camacs' uncles were quiet, easy to get along with and loved their horses. Those were all traits that Bob emulated in his four-decade career as a trainer, mostly in Delaware and Philadelphia Park.

He tried working at an oil refinery once, a stint that might have lasted only slightly longer than the combined times of the Triple Crown races.

When he wasn't at the track, Bob was on the golf course with his wife of 30 years, Maryann. He usually sported a crewcut and sunglasses in the barn, making him recognizable to the scores of newcomers who turned to him for advice.

He earned the respect and admiration of his owners, and others in the barn considered him a mentor.

That's what made his death even more puzzling.

Gene said his brother was concerned when he stopped receiving checks from some of his longtime clients. Finally, Bob confronted his stepson, Wade Russell, about the missing funds. He suspected Russell of taking the checks out of the mailbox and cashing them.

On Dec. 6, 2001, Russell showed up at the Camacs' home in Oldmans Township, N.J., with a shotgun and killed Bob and Maryann.

"How could you walk up and shoot you mother with a shotgun and your stepfather who raised you his whole life?" Gene said. "Wade Russell was stealing thousands and thousands of dollars. If he hadn't killed those two, no one would know. I can't understand his rationale."

Russell pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter earlier this year and is serving a 28-year sentence.

Smarty Jones was only 9 months old at the time.

The Chapmans were so distraught, they all but got out of the horse business. They disbanded their breeding operation, sold off the broodmares, including I'll Get Along, and got rid of all but two of their horses: a slow 2-year-old and Smarty Jones.

"It was a total shock, numbing," Pat Chapman said before the Kentucky Derby. "We didn't know what to do next or who to go to."

When Bob died, several of his clients asked another Philly Park trainer, John Servis, if they could move their horses to his barn. The Chapmans then asked one of their former trainers, Mark Reid, for a recommendation on Smarty Jones - a colt that seemed to have a world of potential, but no one to harness it.

Reid recommended Servis, his former assistant. Servis always respected Bob, even golfed with him a few times, but there was little socialization outside the track.

Now he's helping the Camac family achieve what Bob had always wanted.

"You have to wonder, they're thinking, 'That could be my brother out there,"' Servis said. "Being a trainer, I'm sure that was Bob's dream to win the Kentucky Derby. I'm fortunate to be where I am because of a tragic situation.

"I've always lived on the premise that things happen for a reason, but certainly nothing like that. There's no reason for that."

Servis has remained close with some of Camac's relatives. Servis and his wife, Sherry, extended an invitation to the Camacs for the Belmont. Gene and his wife, Kathy, also attended the Preakness and were in tears in the winner's circle after the race.

"The Derby was really emotional. The Preakness just seemed to give me some more closure about the way things happened," Gene said. "I'm just glad he's getting recognition."

Gene will watch the Belmont with the Chapmans and Servis' family. He believes his brother is with him, too, watching and loving every minute of Smarty's incredible ride.

"I just know it," he says quietly, but convincingly. "I just know it."