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There's something about Smarty

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

ELMONT, N.Y. – There was the three-state police escort. There were the television helicopters following overhead, filming every roll of the tire.

There were the hundreds of motorists who waved, pumped their fists and honked their horns at the white Someday Farms horse trailer as it barreled down the Jersey Turnpike.

There even was a bus full of old women who went wild at the site of Smarty Jones.

"I think they were going to the casinos or something," Smarty's driver Ron Bradford said.

So there you go. When a bus full of blue-hairs headed for the Atlantic City slots go Beatlemania over a horse, is there any doubt this is something historic?

"Nationwide, people have fallen in love with my horse," trainer John Servis said.

A couple of months ago this was an unknown, undersized, underbred underdog with a charming name. Now Smarty Jones is overwhelming our biggest city.

Wednesday, Smarty-mania hit New York.

If he wins Saturday's Belmont Stakes here and becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, the chestnut colt might even wind up bigger than his fellow S-horses – Seattle Slew, Secretariat, even Seabiscuit.

It probably is no coincidence that when Smarty's two-hour police-led trip from his native Philadelphia arrived here, he was led to barn No. 5, where Secretariat himself stayed in 1973 prior to his 31-length victory in the Belmont.

That, of course, is what many consider the last glory days of horse racing, but Smarty is rewriting the story. A crowd of 67,000 here witnessed Secretariat's historic run. On Saturday, track officials expect about 120,000 to cram Belmont Park.

As for betting, Smarty should dominate the window like never before.

"It will probably mark the most money wagered on one thoroughbred in thoroughbred history," Bill Nader of the New York Racing Association said.

The Smarty Jones phenomenon defies all conventional wisdom except: Americans love a great story.

Smarty nearly was killed before his first race when he smashed his head into a practice starter gate, but since overcoming the fear he is undefeated. His jockey, Stewart Elliott, is a journeyman with a past that includes alcohol and legal problems. One of his owners, Roy Chapman, suffers from emphysema and is wheelchair-bound.

Then there is the decidedly blue-collar Team Smarty, a bunch of regular Philly guys who somehow find themselves in charge of a super horse. This includes Bradford, the driver, and Bill Foster, Smarty's stable foreman. After years of toiling in anonymity, both now are giving daily media briefings and signing autographs on the streets.

Servis himself is a career mid-level trainer who hardly even dared to dream of something like this. This is like a good high school football coach getting a shot at the Super Bowl.

"I used to dream about running in the Kentucky Derby all the time," Servis said. "But the Triple Crown was so far-fetched you don't even let yourself think about it."

In Philadelphia, Smarty Jones is treated as a near-god. He is so popular that at the Derby the people installed him as a favorite even though most handicappers favored the better-bred Lion Heart.

When Smarty whipped his rival in Kentucky and then won the Preakness by a record 11½ lengths, he attracted a new fan base that admittedly knows little about the sport. But they love a star.

Now he is all over the New York tabloids. His mug is on the cover of national magazines. His barn back in Philly is flooded with flowers and fan mail. He can't go anywhere without fans flocking.

"I'll tell you," Servis laughed, "he has a big fan club."

So big that when the Smarty caravan barreled over the George Washington Bridge on Wednesday, his police escort only adding to what is always a monumental traffic jam, motorists actually cheered him on. At least according to his team.

"It felt like he was the President of the United States," Foster said.

You think a politician would be treated that well?

Foster smiled.