Kentucky Derby hopeful Smarty Jones is something of a puzzle.
Yes, he is undefeated, having won all six races he has run. And, yes, he displays blistering speed, winning one contest by 15 lengths.
But his origins are so, well, humble. After all, to the racing set, a horse that comes from anywhere but Bluegrass Country is considered something of a Philistine. And Smarty comes from Pennsylvania — a long way from Lexington or Louisville.
Worse, he began his racing career not at Santa Anita, Belmont Park, or some other prestigious track, but at Philadelphia Park.
As The New York Times pointed out this week, few fans at Philadelphia Park go there for the thrill of thoroughbred racing or to behold the magnificent steeds as they promenade from the paddock.
No. They go to bet.
But this week, the railbirds at "the Pha," as the park is known, gave themselves over to Smarty Jones, the chestnut colt with the surfer hairdo.
"Oh my God, I'm so excited," said racetrack-goer Bernice McGarry. "It's such a thrill to have a horse from Philadelphia Park in there, you know. It's unbelievable!"
Aside from questions about his upbringing, Smarty has a few other disadvantages.
Let's start with his size. He's small.
"He's not a big horse by any means," said his trainer, John Servis, fishing for a good way to put it. "But he's a very well-balanced horse. He gets over the ground really easy. He has a big stride on him for a little horse."
Servis raises questions all by himself. Let's start with the fact that he's never been to a Kentucky Derby — not even as a spectator. The same goes for Smarty's jockey, Stewart Elliot.
"He's making a name for himself," Servis said of Smarty. "And he's making a name for me and Stew both."
Smarty's Near-Death Experience
All of these disadvantages are enough to make racing experts a bit skeptical. But consider this:
Smarty almost killed himself.
It was last summer and his handlers were practicing with Smarty in the starting gate — the same thing they had done perhaps 200 times before. On this occasion, though, the horse reared up and smacked his head on a metal crossbar, fracturing his skull.
"He looked like the losing end of a really cheap prize fight," said veterinarian Dr. Patricia Hogan. "He looked terrible."
Hogan's staff took to calling the horse "Quasimodo" because his head was so disfigured by swelling and huge bandages. And yet, through it all, Smarty's spirit remained intact.
"Nothing fazed him," Dr. Hogan recalled. "He had his ears up at the door every day with this big bunch of bandages on his head and whinnying at all of the other horses. He was just full of himself."
He recovered in a few weeks and was racing in November of last year, going on to win the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby after Servis shipped him south to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.
And now, because of a special promotion marking Oaklawn's centennial, a horse who wins the Rebel, the Arkansas and the Kentucky derbies can pocket a special $5 million payoff.
"If we make an extra $5 million doing it, that would be great," said Servis. "But, we just want to be able to say, 'Hey! We won the Kentucky Derby!' "
Back at "the Pha," there is an air of anticipation unlike anything before it. Banners are out urging Smarty on. People are wearing hats with his name on it, and a big celebration is planned for Saturday, when the race is run.
"This doesn't happen," said Philadelphia Park announcer Keith Jones (no relation to Smarty). "It doesn't happen. And it's happening!"