They arrived singly and in pairs. They arrived in clots of four and
five. They came in their hundreds and finally in their thousands - to
a kind of place that many of them had never seen before.
They came, as they often do in times of confusion and unrest, in
search of clarity and greatness. They came to be a part of a story
already wonderful - that might yet become more wonderful still. They
came to say, "I saw, I was there."
They began to line up as the exercise riders worked their charges
through the early morning fog, the fugue of hooves muted by the heavy
air. Their lines formed up as quietly as those at religious shrines
Wisely, those who make such decisions at Philadelphia Park opened the
doors a bit ahead of the appointed hour of 8:00 am, to allow the press
of pilgrims in.
They had come to see a smallish, Pennsylvania bred horse, with the
unlikely name of Smarty Jones, who had won the Kentucky Derby by
almost three lengths over Lion Heart and six lengths over Imperialism.
They had come to see a colt that had beaten the field by almost twelve
lengths at the Preakness. They had come to touch the promise of the
first Triple Crown winner in more than a quarter of a century.
And many had never set foot on a racetrack in their lives.
Smarty Jones has a trainer who had never been to a Kentucky Derby
prior to taking Roy Chapman's horse there. He has a jockey who had
never walked the ground at Churchill Downs, until the day before he
rode in a race bigger than any he thought he would ever see, let alone
In July of his second year, the colt reared and ruined his skull
against an iron bar in the starting gate at Philadelphia Park - he
nearly lost the use of one eye - he nearly died. He spent months in
an equine clinic.
In November of the same year he won in his first race at Philadelphia
Park, by almost eight lengths. Two weeks later he won by fifteen
Smarty Jones still hasn't lost a race.
When the announcer, groggy from this too early working hour, asked
that those in attendance be restrained in their enthusiasm, so as not
to spook the colt during his workout, a titter of laughter worked its
way through the crowd. Some said, "I'll bet they were quiet at the
Derby - I'll bet they were quiet down in Maryland."
Still, they were quiet.
As the colt was lead onto the track, there was no applause, only the
unheard holding of a thousand breaths. The rider stood in the
stirrups and let the young horse stretch out and come slowly to a
moderate stride, letting him uncoil himself into a gentle rolling
A breezing up and down a short way on the track - and then the jockey
took his seat.
You must remember that, at fifteen hands, three inches - Smarty Jones
is only five inches taller at the withers than what would be
considered a pony, rather than a horse. He is not nearly as
overpowering a physical specimen as those that we have become
accustomed to seeing in the winner's circle of the big races.
The jock's hands sat quietly, his legs asking for nothing as the colt
lengthened his stride, apparently to suit himself and for the sheer
joy of running at speed.
Those who have been fortunate enough to hang by the rail at a
horserace often describe the sound of the hooves as, 'thundering'.
There was no thunder in this single horse going around the track - but
there was a rhythmic tattoo, as of a speed bag being thrummed and
brought to a level where the individual blows are indistinguishable -
and the sound is a pulsing blur of power and grace.
As he came before the grandstand there was no cheering, no clapping -
no untoward loudness of expression.
Awe is a silent thing.
Smarty Jones made several passes in front of the crowd. They did
nothing loud - only watched and were glad that they were there.
As the horse was lead away, the first in a series of speakers took
over the microphone.
Most people started heading for the parking lot before the first
speaker was into his second sentence. They'd already seen and heard
what they'd come for.
I took my twelve-year-old daughter to see Smarty Jones this morning.
She wasn't much interested in the speakers, either.
But the expression on her face as we were driving home said all that
needed to be said about what she had just seen.
(OBWW - Smarty is the first owner-bred horse to win the Derby since
Thomas J.Watson - Cabinetmaker (ret.)
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email)