Here was the sound of stardom springing fully formed from the womb of potential and seizing a sport by its throat. Angry clouds framed the twin spires atop the thoroughbred cathedral of Churchill Downs late Saturday afternoon, and the racetrack had been turned into a rice paddy by a midday downpour. The Downs shuddered in the gloaming as a flaming chestnut colt named Smarty Jones flashed down the homestretch and under the wire at the 130th Kentucky Derby, splashing mud in wide, regal arcs, turning his own maybe into a resounding yes. � It was one year ago that a gelding named Funny Cide and a celluloid memory named Seabiscuit returned racing to the spotlight, recalling America's attention to a largely forgotten sport, snatching it back from the slot-machine czars and putting it alongside the best of the games. Now Smarty Jones is up-ping the ante. He has a breathtaking story—aging, kindhearted owners; a trainer and a jockey from a small-time track testing their chops against the best; and a time line sprinkled with tragedy, nearly including his own demise. But he also has the goods. There were doubts before Saturday. Handicappers scoffed at his Philadelphia Park roots and the route he took to Louisville, by way of Arkansas. But the fans knew, and they made Smarty Jones the 4-1 favorite in the Derby. Inside the quarter pole he shook free from the game and gifted Lion Heart and became the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977. He also made his owners nearly $6 million richer for the work.
He is so fast that hardened horsemen turn soft in talking about him. A farm manager in Florida once raced to the phone to rave about his first timed quarter-mile run. His trainer boiled his early efforts down to a simple phrase: "He was running fast," said John Servis. "And he was likin' it." Yet Smarty Jones—a horse so named would have to be wise, would he not?—has learned to administer his speed in small doses, just enough to subdue his opponents. There is a name for horses like this: freaks. All the best ones are freaks. The Preakness and the Belmont lie ahead; 26 years have passed since the last Triple Crown winner. Smarty Jones demands that we watch.
They met more than 28 years ago in the showroom of a Ford dealership in Philadelphia. She was a separated mother of two, he was a twice-divorced father of three. She was looking to buy a new car, and he was such a proficient salesman that he had recently taken ownership of this auto business and turned it dramatically from red ink to black. They were recovering alcoholics, brought together by a common friend from the 12-step program that had helped them right their lives. She walked out of the building that day with a glistening 1976 Ford Granada in silver-blue, and a soul mate.
Six years later Pat and Roy (Chappie) Chapman were married and started a breathtaking life together. They went deep-sea fishing, scooted along the Eastern Seaboard in a cigarette boat and went on fox hunts in the rolling countrysides of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Their children became like natural siblings. The Chapmans lived passionately and stayed sober, too. "Thirty-two years for me, thirty-one for my husband," says Pat, 62. "It's been a wonderful, inspirational life. We've been good for each other. We've been best friends."
In 1986 the Chapmans went into the thoroughbred horse business. They bought almost 100 acres in Chester County, Pennsylvania, named it Someday Farm and raced their horses primarily at Philadelphia Park. "We learned how to do things, although not at a high level," says Chappie, 78. "We were ham-and-eggers, but we got to be players in our league." At the peak of their operation they had more than 20 horses, including three broodmares, but in recent years the joy had been sucked from the sport. In December 2001 the Chapmans' trainer, Bob Camac, and his wife, Maryann, were murdered by Maryann's son from a previous marriage in a dispute over money; it was a body blow to Pat and Chappie, who had been close friends with Bob Camac. Also in recent years the emphysema that has afflicted Chappie since 1992 has worsened, leaving him tethered to portable oxygen tanks and a motorized wheelchair that his sons had to persuade him to use. "It's a bitch when you've been as active as I was," Chappie said earlier this spring, "but I can't complain. I've had a hell of a good life."
That life improbably gave him one more gift when Smarty Jones carried the blue-and-white Chapman silks to victory in the Derby. The horse's 2�-length victory was engineered by Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott, both Derby rookies like the Chapmans. Smarty Jones earned hot only the winner's share of $854,800 but also a $5 million bonus put up by C.J. Cella, the owner of Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., to any horse that could win Oaklawn's Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. (Cella, who conceived the bonus as a 100th anniversary promotion for Oaklawn, initially insured only half the amount and planned to pay the other half out of his pocket. "But after that sensational run in the Arkansas Derby [on April 10], I decided, 'We're in real trouble here,' " Cella said last week. Three days before the Kentucky Derby, he insured the other half.)
Smarty was just the second favorite since 1979 to win the race, and like Funny Cide he was not from racing royalty but from its vast middle class. His long road to the winner's circle started on Someday Farm, where Camac recommended to the Chapmans that they breed their mare I'll Get Along to a stallion named Elusive Quality. A foal was dropped on the last day of February in 2001, but 10 months later Camac was gone and the Chapmans began selling off their stock (I'll Get Along had previously been sold for $130,000, and the Chapmans had downsized to a smaller spread in Bucks County, Pa.). In January 2002 they sent two yearlings to Bridlewood Farm in Ocala, Fla., and gave instructions to George Isaacs, the farm's general manager, to seek buyers for both. Isaacs told Chappie, "Just send 'em down here, and we'll see what you've got."
The unnamed yearling who would later be called Smarty Jones (the childhood nickname of Pat's mother, Mildred, who was also born on Feb. 28) had nimble athleticism and speed. Early in 2003, shortly after Smarty turned two, Isaacs told Chappie that he could get $250,000 for the colt. He also told him that Smarty was a runner. Chappie watches his money closely. He came out of the Navy in 1946 and started selling cars for John B. White Ford on Broad Street in Philadelphia. By 1975 he owned part of a dealership. (The business, which has grown to eight dealerships, is now overseen by Chappie's sons, Randy and Michael. "But we'll hear from Chappie if we aren't selling enough cars," says Randy.) Yet with this horse Chappie rolled the dice. He told Isaacs, "Since you like him so much, we'll try him."
In the late spring of 2003 Isaacs took Smarty to his training track to work a quarter mile. He was hoping the colt would run 26 seconds. "He went in 23, and made it look easy," says Isaacs. "When it came time to ship the colt north, I told Mr. Chapman, 'I think this is the horse you've been waiting for your whole life.' "
On the recommendation of Mark Reid, a respected bloodstock agent and former trainer who had worked for the Chapmans in the '80s, Chappie hired Sends to train Smarty Jones. Servis, 45, a native of Charlestown, W.Va., whose father, Joe, spent 50 years in the industry, had been training in the Northeast since 1984. Like the Chapmans, he was among the best in the minor leagues. Servis had Smarty for less than a month before the colt almost killed himself, smashing his head against the top of a starting gate. He spent three weeks in a hospital and didn't make his 2-year-old debut until Nov. 9, but then he won his first three starts by nearly 28 lengths. Servis sat the Chapmans down for a talk, telling them, "You've got a nice horse here." He then set out to teach Smarty to harness his considerable speed and enthusiasm in an environment in which he wouldn't be punished by defeat while learning.