One horse nearly killed himself by smashing his head against the top of a starting gate before running a single race. Another was almost auctioned off to balance the books. A third was wheezing through a lung infection as recently as two weeks ago. And these, racing fans, are for now the best of the class of 2004, the Kentucky Derby front-runners in a baffling year defined more by failure than success and far more by chaos than form. � Consider: After the last term of betting in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager on April 4, the mutuel field—more than 400 3-year-olds deemed unworthy of individual status—was favored to win the Derby over the 23 horses set aside as individual betting interests. Consider: Among the horses who had emerged from the long prep season as viable Derby candidates were two (Read the Footnotes and Friends Lake) who were taking an unheard-of seven-week break leading into Louisville, one (long-shot Santa Anita Derby winner Castledale) who'd never raced on dirt before March and one (the sensational-looking Rock Hard Ten) who might not have enough in graded-stakes earnings to qualify for the 20-horse Derby field. Then last Saturday, mercifully, Smarty Jones, The Cliff's Edge and Tapit impressively won major preps three weeks shy of the Derby. With their wins the fog lifted. A little.
Smarty Jones won the Arkansas Derby by an easy 1� lengths and will go to Kentucky undefeated in six starts, with a chance to win not just the Derby but a $5 million Rebel-Arkansas- Kentucky Derby bonus for his owners, Patricia and Roy Chapman. Since Smarty Jones began winning, the Chapmans have been deluged by suitors trying to buy the horse—and a shot at the Derby. "Unbelievable," says Roy, a 77-year-old self-made millionaire. "We've gotten offers in the millions, higher every week. But it's like my wife said to me: 'What would we do differently with that money? Nothing.' With Smarty we can go to the Kentucky Derby."
The Chapmans bred Smarty Jones at their Someday Farm in Pennsylvania. Just 10 months after the horse was born, their trainer, Robert Camac, and his wife were murdered by Camac's stepson. Devastated—"It took the guts right out of us," says Roy—the Chapmans sold their breeding stock and all but a handful of racehorses. They hired trainer John Servis, a regular at Philadelphia Park, to replace Camac, and last spring Servis got Smarty Jones.
Servis had breezed Smarty just once when he brought him to the Philadelphia Park starting gate for training last July. The horse reared violently, cracking his head against an iron bar at the top of the gate. He suffered a broken eye socket and multiple fractures of the skull and nasal cavities. "I had doubts if he was going to make it at all," Servis said. The horse spent three weeks in a clinic and then was turned out to heal. He didn't race until November and promptly won twice by a combined 23 lengths. Now he's won six races by a total of 33 lengths. Naysayers insist he can't handle the Derby's 1� miles and that his competition has been weak. Yet he's never lost, and that seems significant in this season of mediocrity.
The Cliff's Edge has been trainer Nick Zito's bench horse, a reliable banger who finished third at 5-1 odds in the March 13 Florida Derby but was regarded as less threatening than Eurosilver (who is now off the Derby trail) and Birdstone (who was scratched from Saturday's Blue Grass Stakes with a high white-blood-cell count). After running down 4-5 favorite Lion Heart in the deep stretch of the Blue Grass, The Cliff's Edge is the hottest Derby starter for Zito since he won the race twice in four years with Strike the Gold in 1991 and Go for Gin in '94. "It's been a pretty emotional day," said Zito late Saturday afternoon outside his barn behind the Keeneland clubhouse. "We had these two horses, and things happen to them. People just expect you to be back at the Derby every year, and it doesn't work like that."
On Zito's recommendation Robert LaPenta had purchased The Cliff's Edge as a yearling in the fall of 2002. Last winter LaPenta, a communications company executive, tried to move the horse in a 2-year-old sale in Florida. "We buy yearlings and try to sell them," says LaPenta. "If we can get our price, we'll sell all of them." His reserve price on The Cliff's Edge was $200,000. The bidding went to $190,000 and stopped, in part because of an unimpressive workout. "A cat ran across the track and spooked him," says Ernie Reichard, LaPenta's racing manager. "What can you do?" The colt was returned to LaPenta. Now he'll be among the Kentucky Derby favorites. "Crazy game," says Zito. "Ten thousand more and we lose him."
Tapit was bought for $625,000 at that same 2002 yearling sale by Verne Winchell (of doughnut fame), who died of a heart attack two months later, after 40 years in the racing business. The colt, owned now by a consortium run by Winchell's wife, Joan, son Ron and daughter Christina Harris, got big Derby buzz when he impressively won last November's Laurel Futurity. The buzz faded when he ran a dull sixth in the Florida Derby, but it has returned after his powerful closing drive carried him past Master David and Eddington to victory in Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
Trainer Michael Dickinson found that a lung infection had caused Tapit's poor performance in Florida. Thirteen days after the Florida Derby he breezed poorly, still sick, and Dickinson didn't work him again until a week before the Wood. "I told the owners, 'I'll leave him as long as I dare,' " Dickinson said on Saturday before the race. "It was a significant infection. If we run third today, that would be great."
In keeping with the spirit of the spring, Tapit refused to perform as expected.