Who woulda thunk it?
Back in late January, when I made my annual pilgrammage to Hot Springs, Ark., to cover the
Oaklawn Park meeting that I would be covering the best 3-year-old in North America?
But that"s what"s happened. Contrary to those Top 10 polls you"ve seen, the best 3-year-old on the
planet, and the likeliest horse to win the Kentucky Derby is a Pensylvania-bred colt named Smarty Jones.
And he"s based at Oaklawn Park.
When Smarty Jones aired in the Rebel Stakes last Saturday at Oaklawn, it stretched his record to 5-for-5.
That includes three stakes victories, three wins going two-turns, and two triple-digit Beyers, if that"s what
floats your boat.
If Smarty Jones wins the $1 million Arkansas Derby here on April 10, and it will take an act of God to
beat him, he will go to the Kentucky Derby with two goals in mind: 1) to become only the second unbeaten
Derby winner, and collect that $5 million bonus offered by Oaklawn honcho Charles J. Cella to the
connections of the horse who wins the Rebel, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.
Considering the way Smarty Jones won the Rebel -- with his jockey, Stewart Elliott, actually smiling for the
cameras -- Mr. Cella has to be happy that he convinced an insurance company to cover half his action.
In the history of horsedom, Sonny"s Halo is the only one to make the Rebel-double Derby sweep. And I
wouldn"t want to bet against Smarty Jones duplicating that feat. After all, his Rebel was by far the best
Derby prep we"ve seen this year. He"s sound. He"s in good hands, and, brother, can this guy run.
Not that you would know from eyeballing the various Top 10 polls across the country. I have the AP poll
in front of me. It has Eurosilver No. 1, and Smarty Jones in the agate on the bottom as a "keep in mind."
It is my feeling -- and you wouldn"t be reading this if you didn"t care about my feelings -- that Smarty Jones
could give Eurosilver a 50-yard head start in a 100-yard race, and kick his butt. Oh, yes. The same poll
has Birdstone listed at No. 7. Giveme a break. Smarty Jones could beat Birdstone running backwards.
Oh, I forgot. Eurosilver and Birdstone are trained by Nick Zito, who won two Derbys back in the early "90s.
And the owners are a rich Arab and Mary Lou Whitney. On the other hand, Smarty Jones is trained by
John Servis, based at Philadelphia Park, and owned by Roy and Patricia Chapman, a mom-and-pop
operation from suburban Philadelphia.
While Mary Lou is throwing extravagant parties for extravagant people, Roy Chapman is lying flat on his
back in a Philly hospital, an emphyzema victim needing an oxygen tent to breathe.
Perhaps -- just perhaps -- if Mary Lou Whitney owned Smarty Jones, and Roy Chapman owned Eurosilver,
their horses" positions in the AP poll would be reversed.
No one wants to believe a small-time operation can produce a Kentucky Derby winner. And that"s
unfortunate. Because that"s what racing is all about. Doesn"t anyone remember Karen and Mickey Taylor
buying Seattle Slew for $17,000? Doesn"t anyone remember Barry Fitzgerald and Shirley Temple taking
Seabiscuit to the heights? (That"s the original Story of Seabiscuit).
I would think that if Smarty Jones wins the Arkansas Derby, and goes to Kentucky with the chance of
joining Seattle Slew as the only unbeaten Derby winners, horse, owner, trainer and jockey suddenly would be
turned into media darlings.Maybe Smarty Jones may even crack somebody"s Top Ten.
The second biggest story in racing last weekend also has a Philadelphia angle. You may even call it The
Philadelphia Story II.
The lead character in this Philadelphia Story is not James Stewart or Bing Crosby. It"s a fellow I call the
Mad Bomber. He"s a Philly-based lawyer who gets his kicks from making six-figure show bets on sure things
across the width and breath.
Normally, the Bomber needs to win 19 of 20 bets to break even, but he likes playing Oaklawn because it offers
a $2.20 minimum. An opportunity arose last Sunday when superstar sprinter Shake You Down was 2-5
against four rivals in the $50,000 Hot Springs Stakes at Oaklawn.
Never one to pass an opportunity, the Bomber packed his bags with crisp $100 bills, jumped into his car, and
made the two-hour trip to The Meadowlands, listening to soothing church music along the way.
When he reached the Big M, he received the bad news. For the first time in Oaklawn"s 100 years, the track
scrapped show betting on a five-horse field.
This was not good news for the Bomber, who was prepared to wager the princely sum of $150,000 to show on
Shake You Down. At 10 cents to the dollar, the MB stood to make $15,000, more than enough to cover the
Turnpike tolls back to Philly.
What could he do? The only thing he could do was to contact a fellow at Oaklawn, and complain.
"Tough luck, buddy", he was told. "Now you may have to go to work to make a living. The gravy train has left
Fast forward four hours.
Shake You Down backs up to finish dead-last in the five-horse Hot Springs. A post-race examination showed
the poor horse had the equine equivalent of the Arkansas Crud. Chicken soup was on its way.
Michelle Pfeiffer could have knocked on the door, and he wouldn"t have felt happier.
"It was if I had died and gone to heaven," he said. "This is the biggest bet I"ve ever won. I may now retire, and
go out on top.
"And, by the way, what can I get Bobby Geiger for Christmas?."
Bobby Geiger is the Oaklawn mutuels" director, and the fellow who cancelled show betting on the Hot Springs.
"Knowing Geiger," I told the Bomber, "only Michelle Pfeiffer would do."