Atlantic City race course slouches in decrepitude, the corrugated roof of its grandstand rusted, its infield tote board dark and disused. It sits off Route 322, which winds past roadside produce stands and boarded-up bars and restaurants. The track was thriving once, alive with glamour and personality—when it opened in 1946, its stockholders included Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra—but it is a bloodless simulcast parlor now, with thoroughbreds racing live only a few days each spring. Stewart Elliott, who until the first Saturday in May had been riding in obscurity, established himself at Atlantic City in the summer of '81, when he was the leading jockey as a 16-year-old apprentice. "This room was really nice," he said last week, his eyes lingering on the dusty corners of an empty lounge at the rear of the cramped jock's room. "There was a pool table over there, a Ping-Pong table over here, couches, shuffleboard in the back. And a really good kitchen." He looked again around a room that was so different.
For the past six months Elliott, 39, has been taken on the ride of his life by the hottest horse on the planet, Smarty Jones, but on this day at the Atlantic City track he had just finished ninth in a $16,000 maiden claimer, aboard Daly's Corner, like Smarty a John Servis trainee, one in the vast sea of interchangeable midlevel horses on which Elliott has carved out a living. "That horse I rode, that was for John," Elliott said. "It's just customers today. It's taking care of business." How different is business, he was asked, from riding Smarty Jones? "If you had a Volkswagen and a Ferrari," he smiled, "which are you going to take?"
Three days later, last Saturday afternoon, before a record throng of 112,668 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Elliott, wearing the blue-and-white silks of Someday Farm, rode the powerful chestnut colt Smarty Jones to a breathtaking 11�-length win in the Preakness. It was the largest margin of victory in the race's 129 runnings, and it made Smarty—who in eight starts now has eight wins, by a combined 47� lengths—a prohibitive favorite to take the Belmont Stakes on June 5 and become racing's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Smarty Jones is a humble and unlikely supplicant at history's doorstep, a Pennsylvania-bred stabled at provincial Philadelphia Park, owned by self-described ham-and-eggers Roy and Pat Chapman, trained by Servis and ridden by Elliott, moderately successful hard knockers both, but little known outside mid-Atlantic racing circles.
Elliott's path, it became clear last week, has been the most tortuous. Born in Toronto, he emigrated to Hong Kong at the age of seven with his parents, Dennis and Myhill, so his father could ride there. Like many jockeys, Dennis struggled to keep his weight down. "He would be out jogging, then get in the car with the heater running," Stewart says. "Or he would come home and get right in the bathtub, filled with hot water and epsom salts, plus he would have an electric heater in there, with a towel under the door." When Stewart was 11, his father passed out during a steam session and fell against the bathroom door, his body holding it closed. "I remember my mom coming into the kitchen, saying, 'Help me, help me!' " Stewart says. "We got the door open to where I was small enough to get inside. I remember his eyes were back in his head. That's when he quit riding. He was fighting it too much. He almost killed himself."
When Stewart was 12, the Elliotts moved to northern New Jersey and bought a 25-acre farm. Myhill gave riding lessons, and Dennis turned to training. Soon Stewart was urging his parents to let him quit school so he could devote more time to riding. He was an unenthusiastic student-while autographing a stack of Smarty Jones caps last week, he said, chuckling, "I never used a pen this much in school"—and was eager to ride professionally. "Also, I thought the same thing that happened to my dad would probably happen to me," he says of battling weight. "That's why I was eager to start when I was young. I was 100 pounds. My weight wasn't a problem yet." He started riding at Philly Park, then blossomed as a bug boy at Atlantic City. With his parents living 45 minutes away, Elliott moved into a 25-foot trailer at a campground near the track, on his own for the first time in his life. The older jocks, notably Tony Black, who had run fourth in the Kentucky Derby in the spring of 1981 aboard Classic Go Go, were a kind of surrogate family.
"One time in a race, I was in behind some horses, and my horse wanted to go, and I had nowhere to let him," Elliott recalls. "Tony was outside of me, and he held me in there. You don't want to yell or ask for help unless you have to, unless you're going to go down. And he was just teaching me, you know? Just from riding with those guys, they made you learn."
Elliott was successful but, like his father, began to struggle with weight. In the mid-'80s a horse walking to the starting gate flipped him onto the rail at Calder Race Course. He was sidelined with a back injury, and his weight ballooned. Unable to control it, he quit riding for a year and a half, working as an exercise rider for little pay. He bounced around minor league tracks and, living a hardscrabble existence, became an alcoholic. That, he says, was responsible for the criminal record that became public last week: guilty pleas to simple assault and criminal mischief, in incidents involving an ex-girlfriend, and aggravated assault, after he beat an acquaintance with a beer bottle, a pool cue and a wooden stool. He was fined more than $1,000 for the first offenses; for the latter he received one year of probation and was ordered to pay the victim's medical bills. (Last Thursday the Kentucky Horse Racing Association fined him $1,000 for failing to disclose the assault charges on his application to ride at Churchill Downs.) "If it wasn't for Smarty Jones," he said ruefully last week, "none of it ever would have come up. A lot of bad things happened in my life that I'm not proud of. I just want to forget about them and go on."
Elliott went through rehab in the summer of 2000, and soon after, Danny Dubuc, effectively his sponsor, introduced him to Lauren Vannozzi, who is now Elliott's fianc�e. "I was staying with Danny," she says, "and I came home and saw this little guy sitting on the couch. I was like, 'Who the hell are you?' But being around each other, doing things together, we got close." His drinking, and the problems it caused, Vannozzi says, are "done with, taken care of, in the past. Nobody harps on it."
The Chapmans and Servis were aware of Elliott's situation, but the trainer was so confident of Elliott that he never considered changing jockeys for the Derby. "I knew what Stew was going through," says Servis. "Quite frankly it might have been a blessing in disguise. He opened his eyes, got dedicated and decided that he wanted to be a top rider." Elliott responded with a masterly ride at Churchill Downs and was spectacular again at Pimlico. After a twice-delayed start—Imperialism lost the shoe on his left foreleg and was returned to the paddock and reshod, and the fractious Rock Hard Ten was reluctant to load—Smarty, hammered down at the betting windows to a 3-5 favorite, broke sharply on top, then conceded the lead to Lion Heart. Under Mike Smith, Lion Heart raced, as is his preference, three or four paths off the rail, and Elliott, glued to his right flank, went wider still around the first turn. But Smarty was moving with an easy, powerful gallop, and Elliott, unconcerned, wanted only to give him an unobstructed trip. He remained wide while tracking comfortable fractions: a half-mile in :47 1/5 six furlongs in 1:11 2/5.
At the? pole Elliott looked left, saw space and, using Smarty's exceptional tactical speed, ducked to the rail, slipping inside Lion Heart and snatching the lead on the far turn. Said Patrick Biancone, Lion Heart's trainer, " Smarty Jones swallowed him in two jumps." It was an efficient move, perfectly timed, and it left Elliott at the top of the stretch with only daylight between himself and the wire.