LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A decade ago, Churchill Downs was in the midst of a major renovation. A few hours before the 2004 Kentucky Derby, it really looked as if the world might end - lightning, thunder, a deluge. The area was quickly becoming a construction zone/flood zone.
John Servis was waiting out the final hours in the barn, not far from the stall that housed the unbeaten Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones owned by Roy and Pat Chapman.
The Philadelphia Park-based trainer had guided the Arkansas Derby to this moment flawlessly. And he knew Smarty was sitting on the race of his life.
"He had trained well in the mud and I wasn't really that worried about it," Servis said. "But I had no idea it was going to be that bad. We're back at the barn watching the radar on the TV, and you see this big, green blob coming. So we knew it was going to rain. The winds kicked up . . . At one point, I'm thinking: Could they cancel the Kentucky Derby? This couldn't really happen. Didn't know if the tents were going to blow away or what was going to happen."
They did not cancel the Derby. Smarty Jones, brilliantly ridden by Philadelphia Park jockey Stewart Elliott, who made a crucial decision in the first few hundred yards that extricated his mount from a potentially difficult circumstance, owned the race, running away from the field in the stretch to become the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977.
So, 10 years?
"It's hard to believe," Servis said. "It flew by."
The rain let up long before the race, which gave Servis and his two boys a chance to walk from the barn to the paddock with Smarty, the fans just a few feet away on the stroll around the first turn.
"The thing to me that was the most special of everything, other than being in the winner's circle, was walking over with my kids for the race," Servis said. "Just the excitement, the electricity in the air, just everybody screaming and hollering and the kids were beaming."
Servis was incredibly confident that week. Smarty's final workout was a tour de force.
"He did it effortlessly," Servis said. "He just worked so good."
And the colt ran even better than he worked.
When Smarty took the lead in the stretch, it was clear he would win. There just were no other horses running. Servis knew his horse was running great, so he scanned the rest of the field with his binoculars to see whether anything was coming.
"I was just elated," Servis said. "I was very calm, very cool. I was, like, you know what? Just get to the wire. Once we get to the wire, we'll be good."
Servis, who has won nearly 1,400 races and has horses that have won nearly $40 million in purses, is still winning races at Parx, Florida and tracks all over the East Coast. He has had other good horses, but he knows Smarty will be the best he ever gets. He will watch today's Derby from back home.
Elliott will be in the Churchill Downs jockeys' room. With 4,600 wins and mount earnings of $92 million, Elliott has earned a nice living at Parx in the last decade. He decided to change everything a few months ago and moved to Kentucky, riding brilliantly at the recent Keeneland meet, finishing second in the standings, with 15 winners and tied for first with 21 percent winners.
Servis credits Elliott with that split-second decision early in the Derby that changed everything. Smarty had two horses to his outside, two to his inside. It was getting very crowded.
"When he was in tight going by the wire the first time and they bounced him a little bit, a lot of riders might have thought, 'We're pretty close to the turn, now let me get out of here,' and he let him stay in up there," Servis said. "To Smarty's credit, he was comfortable in there."
When the horses came out of the first turn, Smarty was in the clear on the rail.
"We're sitting good now," Servis thought.
The trainer had gotten the horse to the moment. The jockey had gotten him into great position. It was all up to the horse from there.
The 2004 Kentucky Derby winner and the story that went with him were so compelling, it got Smarty Jones on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Ten years later, the memory of Philadelphia's horse winning America's greatest horse race remains vivid, almost as if it can't really be 10 years.
But it really is 2014. The favorite in this Derby is a horse bred in California with a great backstory, just like Smarty Jones. Horses born in California, like those born in Pennsylvania, are not supposed to win the Derby. Well, that did not matter when Smarty Jones ran. It was only important how well he ran. Early this evening, we shall see whether it matters where California Chrome was born or how fast he is, in relation to the other horses.