ANNVILLE, Pa. — It was 15 years ago when Smarty Jones came off a van at what was then known as Philadelphia Park, a local hero returning home after winning one of the world’s marquee sporting events, the Kentucky Derby. It was last Thursday when Smarty Jones emerged from his barn at Equistar Farm, a turn off the perfectly named Crooked Road, surrounded by 60 acres of mostly pasture, Hollywood Casino at Penn National just across nearby Interstate 81, Lebanon Valley College a few miles down the road.

The great race horse, by far the most accomplished ever born in Pennsylvania and still one of the most popular born anywhere, was brought outside by Equistar’s owner, Rodney Eckenrode. Smarty is 18 now but seriously looks like he could still run. And man, could that horse run.

Smarty has not run since the 2004 Belmont Stakes, the only race he ever lost, and if noncontenders hadn’t pushed Smarty early, he would have been a Triple Crown winner, too.

Smarty has been a stallion since 2005, his legs too fragile to train, much less race, after his grueling seven-race run in the winter and spring of 2004. He began his stallion career at Three Chimneys in Kentucky, came back to two farms in Pennsylvania, went to legendary Calumet Farm in Kentucky, shuttled some years to Uruguay for the South American breeding season, and returned to Pennsylvania in late December to stand his first season at Equistar.

At the beginning, Smarty was bred to 100 mares each breeding season. It is down to 30 or 40. He has produced 1,500 winners and 35 stakes winners, but never the big horse, never a horse like Smarty Jones.

Pat Chapman, who raced Smarty Jones with her late husband, Roy, also known as Chappy, is the eternal optimist. Smarty’s grandson Win Win Win will race Saturday in the Kentucky Derby.

“I’m so excited I can’t stand it,” Chapman said. “Guess what else? This race is being run on May 4th. That would be Chappy’s 93rd birthday. I get goose bumps. What a blessing that would be.”

Win Win Win is a long shot, but so was Smarty, until he started to run fast, then faster, and then so fast that he won the Preakness by the biggest margin in the history of the race.

The casino down the road and the one across the Parx Racing parking lot from the stable area where Smarty spent so much time in 2003 and 2004 in trainer John Servis’ barn are one testament to the power of the horse. Former Gov. Ed Rendell has said many times that the slots bill (Act 71) he signed in the Parx winner’s circle in July 2004 might not have become law without all the positive publicity the horse created that spring.

Pennsylvania’s horse

Smarty’s eternal legacy is his incredible popularity, then and now.

“Smarty has such a fan club,” Eckenrode said. "There’s people that come through here two days a week, just come to see him. We had some people here from Washington state, and the lady literally walked up to his stall and started crying — she was so emotional. It was the most amazing thing.

“I was emotional when he got here on the truck, too, don’t get me wrong, but I was thinking, ‘What did you get yourself into?’ Then, the real worry starts. He acts like a 3-year-old. He’s not a young horse. You worry because you hate to be the last one to have him, as sad as that sounds.”

Chapman decided to bring Smarty home because the horse just wasn’t getting much business at Calumet. Eckenrode was shocked to get a call from Brian Sanfratello, executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, to see whether he would be interested in having Smarty. He did not need to be asked. Of course he was interested. This was Smarty Jones, Pennsylvania’s horse. When it was arranged for Chapman to visit the farm in September, Eckenrode was concerned.

“Here I am just a little old farm, and Mrs. Chapman is coming,” Eckenrode said. “I was extremely nervous. It was the most pleasant three-hour visit with a total stranger I’ve ever had in my life."

Smarty Jones walks through the Annville farm where he lives with manager Rodney Eckenrode.
Kalim A. Bhatti
Smarty Jones walks through the Annville farm where he lives with manager Rodney Eckenrode.

There are bigger farms in better locations with more facilities than Equistar. Chapman did not care about any of that. Equistar felt like home.

“I talked to her that morning,” Eckenrode said. "She called back that afternoon and said, ‘Rodney, let’s do this.’ "

Smarty got out of Uruguay around the time of a fire at the farm where he was at stud. He left the quarantine facility in Miami for Pennsylvania just before a deadly salmonella outbreak. It was a metaphor for how he ran, always fast enough to get away from trouble.

Smarty Jones is not so easy to find these days. Get off the turnpike at the Lebanon exit; pass a bunch of silos and more than a few cows; miss a few turns; and, then, finally end up on Crooked Road, which will take you to Equistar.

Like the guy two weeks ago who was driving from Boston to Keeneland in Kentucky and just wanted to stop by to see him. If you are lucky, you might catch Smarty grazing inside the circular driveway that fronts the barn where he is housed. Equistar had an open house for Smarty on a January day with a miserable forecast. Eckenrode thinks 300 people came through.

“We get calls or emails every day,” Eckenrode said. “The horse got Christmas cards.”

Of course the horse did. That’s because the horse is Smarty Jones.

Smarty Jones, with jockey Stewart Elliott, wins the 2004 Kentucky Derby.
Associated Press
Smarty Jones, with jockey Stewart Elliott, wins the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

2019 Kentucky Derby field