It was nearing midnight in the elegant Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville at the corner of 4th and Broadway. The 130th Kentucky Derby had been over for nearly 6 hours. Two hours before the race, a monsoon, complete with hail, thunder and lightning, had turned puddles at Churchill Downs into rivers. In a Derby-night tradition, cars were driving Broadway aimlessly, bumper to bumper on the way to nowhere in particular.
On the second and third floors of the Brown, the Smarty Jones people, the Philadelphia people, were reliving the day of their lives. Owners Roy and Pat Chapman were in a lovely third-floor ballroom, eating a very late dinner with family and friends. Jockey Stewart Elliott, his mother, Myhill, and financee, Lauren Vannozzi, had just joined the Chapmans. Trainer John Servis and his wife, Sherry, after spending time with the Chapmans in the second-floor lobby area and then before dinner on the third, were with dozens of their family members on the second floor.
Smarty Jones had won the Kentucky Derby. Every replay said it was true. The result had long since been posted official.
Smarty ($10.20) was just the second Derby favorite to win in a quarter century. He was only the fifth unbeaten Derby winner and first since Seattle Slew in 1977. Counting the $5 million "centennial" bonus put up by Oaklawn Park owner Charles Cella for winning the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby in addition to "the" Derby, Smarty Jones' haul of $5,854,800 was the largest single-race payout in horse-racing history.
The colt had smooth sailing all spring. Race after race, Smarty had cruised into free-and-clear contention early and won with conviction.
Smarty really was tested in the Derby. When the field passed the finish line for the first time, Smarty was in a vice, surrounded by multiple horses on either side, just a few lengths behind pace-setting Lion Heart.
A lesser horse backs out of that situation, especially heading into the harrowing first turn of the Derby. Smarty held his ground. By the time the field hit the backstretch, the horses to his inside had disappeared. Two horses were lapped to his outside, pinning Smarty down near the rail, not the place a horse really wants to be on a track that seemed equal parts water, mud and sand.
Halfway down the backstretch, Quintons Gold Rush had seen enough of Smarty . He peeled out and never did finish. Pollard's Vision then began to retreat. He finished 17th of 18. Minister Eric made a bid to the inside of Smarty before calling it a day. He finished 16th. In other words, the three horses who challenged Smarty finished last, next to last and next to next to last.
Smarty , rid of the riffraff, took off after Lion Heart in earnest heading into the far turn. On the turn, he was gaining with every stride as the top pair made the rest of the field disappear in the gloaming.
"I knew I had a loaded gun underneath me and I was waiting," Elliott said. "As long as nobody was coming at me from behind, I was going to sit."
By the head of the stretch, the time for waiting was over. Smarty was bearing down on the lead. It was no longer a question of whether, but when. And the when came with just more than 100 yards to go in a race that lasts for 1 1/4 miles. With Elliott switching his whip smoothly from one hand to another like the consummate professional he is, Smarty Jones went right on by Lion Heart and won by 2 3/4 lengths. Lion Heart was 3 1/4 lengths clear of Imperialism, who closed nicely for third. The margin from first to 17th was 40 lengths.
The difference between Smarty Jones and his competition was incalculable. It was the horse-racing version of a rout. Smarty ran the distance in 2 minutes, 4.06 seconds. The unknowing will see a slow time. Do not be fooled. The track was playing much faster before the monsoon. It slowed down considerably after the heavens spoke. Smarty 's time, adjusted for the speed of the race track, duplicated what he had been doing in Arkansas.
Horses rarely win seven consecutive races at any level. They almost never win at seven different distances. They do not win those races by a combined 36 lengths.
Unless that horse's name is Smarty Jones, a colt who never has been passed, a colt who is already the sixth-highest career money winner in thoroughbred history and the only one alive in 2004 for the $5 million Triple Crown bonus. The Triple Crown has been on the line in 5 of the last 7 years at the Belmont Stakes, but has not been won since 1978. On May 15, Smarty Jones will be at Pimlico in Baltimore for the Preakness. Half of Philadelphia may be there with him.
Whatever happens next, the Derby lasts forever. Saturday's winners best explain the magnitude of winning the race. The $5 million bonus was an afterthought. Winning the Derby overwhelmed everything.
"After about 30 minutes, I said to Pat, 'You know what, we just won $5 million,' '' Roy Chapman said. "I ain't turning the money down."
Just before the race, Servis had leaned over to Chapman and said, "Chap, whatever happens, we've had a great ride."
Then, the ride got far more exhilarating than any of them could have ever imagined. Horses from Philadelphia Park don't even try the Derby. Winning? Not realistic.
Then, suddenly, it was real. Tyler Servis, 13, reached out and hugged his father from behind. Servis reached in front to Chapman and kissed him on the right cheek.
For a moment, it appeared that Chapman, weakened by emphysema, confined to a motorized wheelchair and 3 days from his 78th birthday, was struggling to breathe. He recovered quickly.
NBC wanted to start the winner's-circle ceremony without him.
"I told NBC to wait for that man, it's his horse," said Chapman's son, Mike. "That was the Eagles fan coming out in me."
They waited until Chapman was taken across the track to the victory stand. The ceremony began when he arrived.
Servis, 45, had been super-confident all week. Now, everybody knew why. "The real Philadelphia Flyer," as the Smarty Jones hats said, had flown above the crowd.
"I'm in a fog," Servis said. "It's a long way from that first horse I bought for $350."
Pat Chapman had gotten a message from the man who runs Secretariat.com. If she wanted to call Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, the number could be provided.
The governor of Kentucky had toasted them all in the Derby Museum.
"I hope you all notice the horse is from Philly, I'm from Philly, John Servis is from Philly," Chapman told the audience.
They had watched the wonderful surround-sound slide show that ends with the running of the most recent Derby. Next year, it will be them.
With a drizzle still coming down and the grandstand darkened, Sherry Servis held a single rose and John carried a wonderful picture of Smarty alone at the finish as the Servis family departed for the barns to see the Derby winner around 9 p.m. An hour later, everybody met up at the Brown.
"I've got to go up and lie down," Chapman said about 11 p.m. "I've got to get ready for Baltimore."
At 1 a.m., he still was holding court.
"This horse has kept him alive," Mike's wife, Susan, said of the elder Chapman. "I've never seen him so vibrant."
He loved hearing what Elliott had to say.
"The way he ran today was the best he's ever run," Elliott told the owner.
Everybody talked about not cleaning the Derby mud off their shoes - ever. It was simply a day nobody wanted to end.
Barely after it did, Servis, Sherry, still holding a rose, and Servis' father, Joe, pulled up in front of Smarty 's barn at 7:20 a.m. It still was raining. Nobody minded. Smarty was still hanging in barn 41, stall 17.
Smarty Jones, Servis said, would be heading home for Philadelphia Park as soon as he could arrange transportation.
A crowd of 140,054 had been at Churchill the day before. The next morning, the joint was deserted. Only Smarty Jones remained and, after being away from home since January, he would be heading north shortly.
More than $90 million had been bet on the Derby. It is America's race, and Americans love to gamble.
This Derby, however, wasn't about the superfecta. It wasn't about the horses and people who did not win. It wasn't about the weather.