In the spring of 2004, Americans were reeling from revelations that U.S. soldiers had subjected prisoners to humiliating and inhumane abuses at the Abu Ghraib facility in Baghdad, Iraq. The soldiers had then documented the abuses in photographs, which became public in late-April on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes II. But on the first Saturday in May, a chestnut colt named Smarty Jones blew past leader Lion Heart at the eighth pole at Churchill Downs and went on to win the 130th running of the Kentucky Derby, and for the next five weeks, Smarty Jones and his connections took a war weary nation on an exhilarating ride as they chased after the elusive Triple Crown. Though Smarty would meet with defeat at Belmont, his down-home story captured the hearts of racing veterans and rookies alike, and seasoned pros looked for ever-expansive superlatives to describe the hard-luck horse with the huge heart and a seemingly unbeatable will to win.
The bettors had made Smarty Jones the 4-1 favorite on Derby Day, and when he finished first across the wire, his star was forever cast. His was a made-for-Hollywood kind of story: He was foaled out of a mare with the earnest-sounding name I’ll Get Along to a Thoroughbred-owning couple who had met as alcoholics in recovery. They dreamed of their big dreams coming true some day, so they called their farm Someday Farm, and they hailed from Philadelphia, the city of the Liberty Bell and brotherly love. In the year before the Kentucky Derby, Smarty had barely survived a starting gate schooling accident in which he had cracked his skull and broken an eye socket and his nasal passage. He spent three weeks in a veterinary hospital and another month on the farm recovering. Yet he still managed to compete and win in two races as a two-year-old.
To prep him for the Derby, Smarty Jones’ trainer, John Servis, eschewed the grueling California and Florida circuits, opting instead to race him at first at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York, where he bested a solid field of seven to win the Count Fleet Stakes, and then at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, where he won the Southwest Stakes, the Rebel Stakes, and the Arkansas Derby. When he won the Kentucky Derby on May 1, Smarty Jones became the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.
“Smarty Fever,” as it was called, swelled in the two weeks between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell issued a proclamation declaring May 15 “Smarty Jones Day” in the commonwealth. The colt graced the May 10 cover of Sports Illustrated—the first time in more than 20 years that a horse had appeared there—under the headline, “Why Everybody Loves Smarty Jones.” At the Preakness on May 15, Smarty Jones thrilled his adoring public with a breathtaking performance, blazing home with a record-setting 11 1/2-length victory in the second leg of the Triple Crown.
On his trek from Pimlico’s track in Baltimore back home to Philadelphia Park, Smarty Jones was accompanied by a police escort and a contingent of media helicopters that documented the slow caravan’s procession as it wound along the highways and byways lined with sign-waving fans. An audience of more than 4,500, who had lined up at the track before dawn, came to watch him gallop around the track in his daily workout. A group of nuns in white habits came from the Little Sisters of the Poor to let Smarty know they were praying for him to win the big race. The sign they brought read, “God Speed, Smarty Jones.”
Race day at Belmont saw attendance of more than 120,000 racegoers, the largest crowd ever to attend a sports event in New York. A Time magazine article had predicted that the betting handle for the race would exceed $100 million. NBC’s coverage of the race delivered more than a quarter of the television viewing public, according to Nielsen Media Research. It was the highest rating for a horse racing event since Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown win, which had drawn a 47 percent share.
When Smarty Jones pulls into the lead of the nine-horse field on Belmont’s backstretch, a tremendous roar erupts from the crowd. But on this day, unlike in his previous eight races, Smarty Jones appears to struggle. As Rock Hard Ten continues his run at Smarty Jones, the fiery colt never quite settles into his game. While he maintains the lead for much of the race, in the final yards of the stretch, the 36-1 longshot, Birdstone, passes Smarty Jones and dashes the hero’s hopes for a crown. He is, in the words of track announcer Tom Durkin, “valiant but vanquished.”
Smarty Jones and all of his connections had distinguished themselves with their remarkable calm and composure amid so much frenzy surrounding their bid for Triple Crown, and they showed extraordinary grace and sportsmanship in defeat. Smarty’s Jockey, Stewart Elliot, gave an effusive congratulation to winning jockey Edgar Prado, and trainer John Servis went out of his way to find Birdstone’s trainer, Nick Zito, and to offer up his praise for a job well done.
The history books will record that Smarty Jones was just one of a long string of horses who have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes but then failed to capture the Belmont Stakes and thus win Thoroughbred racing’s most coveted prize. Yet in an era when sports heroes seem to make more news for their sex and doping scandals than for their competitive achievements, it’s worth reminding ourselves that, once in a while, it’s possible for something unsullied to captivate us. In his quest for the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones touched a nerve in the American psyche that ached for a seemingly impossible dream to come true, for the out-of-control world to suddenly right itself, and for something genuinely good and true to occur. In the end, it turned out, the dream really was just a dream. But for five weeks in the spring of 2004, we were all better for having dreamt it.