Tuesday, June 1, 2004

BENSALEM, Pa. — Smarty Jones for president?

Don’t laugh. Smarty Jones mania has reached such a crescendo entering Saturday’s 136th Belmont Stakes that Kentucky breeder David Mullins launched a campaign for the colt.

Mullins, who gave out 500 bumper stickers on the first day alone, called Smarty Jones a “grass roots” candidate with his own running mate (jockey Stewart Elliott) who already has won “straw polls” in Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky and Maryland by wide margins. If nothing else, Mullins promises his candidate will be an honest politician who won’t be compromised by his expected duties as a stallion.

“He admits he’ll be having sex all next spring while he’s in office,” Mullins said. “What’s not to like about Mr. Jones? He’s got charisma, good looks, down home appeal.”

The stud offers have been pouring in. Imagine what will happen if Smarty Jones actually wins the Belmont to become thoroughbred racing’s first Triple Crown champion in 26 years. Will mares wave their bridles at him?

Politicians already have shown interest — they have discussed renaming a major street in Bensalem for the colt — and track officials are considering commissioning a statue. President Bush’s staff already has asked about a White House visit, and the Pennsylvania governor has offered a parade.

The horse’s fan mail has surpassed 1,000 letters, including some from prisoners looking for hope. Children draw pictures of the horse and send notes. People want horse shoes and autographs. One women wrote and asked to have her picture taken atop the colt as if he were some kind of pony ride.

Last year, Funny Cide was racing’s biggest story in decades before he lost the Belmont, failing to win the Triple Crown. Horse racing got a big boost from the movie “Seabiscuit,” which earned $120 million last summer. But Smarty Jones fever has made those phenomena look like passing fads.

He was a no-name colt whose career nearly ended in a starting gate accident before his first race, but after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he might be the second coming of his great grandfather, Secretariat. His trainer, jockey and owner have gone from everyday racing folks to cult figures.

“The biggest applause I ever received was when I kissed my wife at our wedding reception,” trainer John Servis said. “And now people congratulate me, and I’ve heard from friends I haven’t heard from in years.”

Servis knew his life changed when three news helicopters followed Smarty Jones’ return to Philadelphia Park after his Kentucky Derby win. These days they’re covering 5:30 a.m. workouts from above. More than 8,500 fans attended a Saturday morning gallop — twice a normal weekend afternoon crowd for actual racing. And for the first time the 30-year-old track drew a bigger crowd for the Preakness simulcast than for the Derby as locals bet nearly $800,000 to win on Smarty Jones.

“We never expected to see anything like this,” said Joseph Wilson, vice president of the suburban Philadelphia track. “It’s the local connections here. A Pennsylvania-bred horse. The owner is from Philadelphia. The jockey lives [nearby]. The trainer lives in Bensalem. When does that ever happen? It doesn’t.”

Smarty Jones even has two nicknames — the Philly Flyer and Little Red. Sports Illustrated made his Kentucky Derby victory its first racing cover since 1983, while ESPN the Magazine cast Smarty Jones as its first coverhorse. Media from Australia, Japan and England have joined the U.S. press in demanding interview time with Servis from dawn to dusk. Even Jay Leno wants time with Smarty Jones — “The Tonight Show” has put in a request for the horse.

And anything with Smarty Jones is a hot seller in a city hoping for its first pro champion of any sort since 1983. More than 1,000 T-shirts and 500 hats were snatched up during a morning workout, while $200,000 of merchandise was sold nationally in the first three days. EBay offered 1,151 Smarty Jones items yesterday, from magnets and clothing to photos and Belmont tickets. A Derby glass worth $6 was going for $84 just because it had Elliott’s signature on it.

Servis already has answered 200 letters, but they just keep coming. A local fourth-grade class sent its well wishes. Another card thanked Servis for his kindness after the sender’s brother died years ago. One racetrack gave Smarty Jones a faux diploma as a “Doctor of Furlongs.”

Beach Cutler of Captiva Island, Fla., mailed a photo of himself with a note that described how Smarty Jones helped his rehabilitation.

“You inspired me to run like a racehorse when I’m walking with my physical therapist,” Cutler wrote. “When I’m walking in the pool with my mom, my nurse times me. There are times when I’m pretending to be winning like a horse. You’ve lifted my spirits even though I breathe with a ventilator.”

Elliott, whose alcoholism fueled his legal issues, receives mail from parents of children with alcohol problems. Servis can’t believe all of the people who have been inspired by the horse. He plans to respond to all of the mail, which may become a second career.

“The best are from the kids,” Servis said. “You know how kids are — they just say what they feel. My wife was showing me one we got where a kid drew dollar signs all over a sheet and said, ‘Smarty Jones, you’re making so much money, send me some money.’ It’s amazing how many letters we’ve gotten from people who are thanking us for the horse, how much they love the horse and how much all of America appreciates us.”

Servis declined the White House invitation. After all, who needs a rose garden when you have a rose blanket?

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