Sun, May 23, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Smarty Jones puts horse-racing world in media spotlight


The letters, calls and e-mails arrive so fast that John Servis can't keep up.

They come from schools and prisons, and even those who never watched a horse race until they heard about Smarty Jones. The little red chestnut colt that Servis led to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness has made even the casual fans want to be a part of Smarty Mania.

"It's amazing how much this horse has touched so many people's lives," Servis said. "I expected this would be like a sporting event where people scream and holler. It's more like, `thank you so much.' People are excited to have this story to grasp on to."

Smarty Jones' popularity only keeps growing. He's a Pennsylvania-bred horse who nearly died when he slammed his head on an iron bar; his trainer and jockey are based at small-time Philadelphia Park; and his owners refused a blank check to sell him.

Servis and wife, Sherry, said they'll answer all the wellwishers, but it's taking time. Fans send religious passages or stories about how the horse has changed their life. Grade school children send drawings and ask questions about how Smarty Jones felt when he was hurt.

"So many young kids have grasped onto it, which gives you hope that the next generation can be thrust into the racing world and be fans," Servis said.

Some requests, though, have lacked horse sense. There are the requests for Smarty's autograph, a marriage proposal (yes, for the horse), an equine message therapist has offered a rubdown, and even a psychic wanted to lay her hands on the horse to get a prediction.

Hmmm, Smarty to win, perhaps?

Servis has turned into a minor celebrity, appearing on countless radio and TV shows. He won a fan a prize on a radio contest in California on Friday for answering trivia questions correctly. The hosts didn't even ask him about his colt.

"I didn't even know they had radios in some of these towns," Servis said, laughing.

His name may as well have been Smarty since that's what Flyers fans chanted when they saw Servis at the Game 6 NHL playoff game on Thursday. Servis, a die-hard Flyers fan who donned a team jersey during a public workout, met some of the players before the game and they wanted his autograph.

Servis also met the widow of former Flyers announcer Gene Hart. She told Servis that she rarely left the house since her husband died, but on the day of the Preakness she drove to Atlantic City to bet on Smarty Jones.

"She just said, `Thank you so much,'" Servis said. "That's the kind of story it is."

It's a story that Servis hopes ends with a Belmont Stakes win and the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Smarty Jones had a strong, solo 2.4km gallop early Friday morning at Philadelphia Park. The horse could take longer gallops next week and Servis planned to work the horse at least once before the Belmont.

Four horses that could be in the Belmont Stakes are among those running in Saturday's Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont. Master David and Friends Lake, who both finished far behind Smarty at the Kentucky Derby, were entered, along with Purge and Sinister G. Purge finished behind Smarty Jones in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, while Sinister G lost to the Derby and Preakness winner in the Count Fleet Stakes at Aqueduct in January.

Servis remained undecided on when to ship his colt to New York and said he could even wait until the day before the June 5 race.

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