By Dick Jerardi
It was sunny. It was ominous. It was pleasant. It was pouring.
In the end, Smarty Jones Day at Parx was glorious, a day-long celebration, an event 15 years in the making, a series of snapshots that surely will turn into lifetime memories.
Smarty Jones, the horse of Pat and Roy Chapman’s lifetime, the horse they insisted on sharing with everybody during the horse racing feast that was the spring of 2004, returned to the track where his remarkable saga began in 2003.
There were seven stakes races on the brilliant card put together by the track’s racing office. Those were attractions for the casual fan and the serious bettor alike, so much so that the $4 million handle was believed to be the track’s highest ever on Labor Day. It was absolutely twice as much as 2018.
But “the” attraction was the return of Smarty Jones. The 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner came back to Parx from Equistar Farm in Annville, Pa., where he stands at stud. Farm owner Rodney Eckenrode drove the van, arriving about five hours prior to Smarty’s scheduled appearance.
Smarty emerged from the area around trainer John Servis’s barn just after 5 p.m. The now-18-year-old horse walked toward the quarter-pole gap where he came on to the racing surface for the first time since he walked off at the same spot Aug. 14, 2004 after a “farewell” celebration.
Flanked by Eckenrode and Mario Arriaga, his groom from his racing days, Smarty walked toward the winner’s circle as the fans lined up along the rail started to cheer. And never really stopped.
The plan was to take Smarty past the winner’s circle to the walking ring for a few turns and then stop in the winner’s circle for a brief ceremony before heading back to the stable area.
“When he got close to the winner’s circle,” Pat Chapman said, “and I saw Mario, I said, ‘I’ve got to go say hi to Mario’. I said, ‘the heck with this, I’ve got to take that walk with him.’”
Which is exactly what she did. On an emotional day, that was the most emotional moment. Pat walked with her horse to the walking ring and then back to the winner’s circle.
Pat Chapman had wanted a day like it to happen for years, but was always a little hesitant. She finally said go.
“I had no idea what to hope for,” Pat said. “It really met anything I could hope for. I thought it was a great day, a great turnout. Loved the fans, loved seeing them, loved hearing them yell ‘Smarty, Smarty’! It was so thrilling.”
It was definitely that.
“It was great to see the crowd and how much they enjoyed it,” Smarty Jones’s former trainer John Servis said. “It was pretty sweet. It was fun; great to see him here.”
Smarty Jones has not forgotten Servis either. When he heard his voice in the barn area, he “called out” for his trainer.
As great as Smarty Jones was as a race horse—and his 47 1/2-length combined winning margins in his eight wins tells part of that story—the horse’s real magic was how he made people feel. If you saw Smarty run or said his name or just thought about him, you had to smile.
Without question, there were people there on Labor Day who were there 15 years ago for the “farewell”. There are very few horses in history that would inspire that kind of devotion. But Smarty Jones did then and does now. May it always be so.