Atlantic City Race Course slouches in decrepitude, the corrugated
roof of its grandstand rusted, its infield tote board dark and
disused. It sits off Route 322, which winds past roadside produce
stands and boarded-up bars and restaurants. The track was
thriving once, alive with glamour and personality--when it opened
in 1946, its stockholders included Bob Hope and Frank
Sinatra--but it is a bloodless simulcast parlor now, with
thoroughbreds racing live only a few days each spring. Stewart
Elliott, who until the first Saturday in May had been riding in
obscurity, established himself at Atlantic City in the summer of
'81, when he was the leading jockey as a 16-year-old apprentice.
"This room was really nice," he said last week, his eyes
lingering on the dusty corners of an empty lounge at the rear of
the cramped jock's room. "There was a pool table over there, a
Ping-Pong table over here, couches, shuffleboard in the back. And
a really good kitchen." He looked again around a room that was so
For the past six months Elliott, 39, has been taken on the ride
of his life by the hottest horse on the planet, Smarty Jones,
but on this day at the Atlantic City track he had just finished
ninth in a $16,000 maiden claimer, aboard Daly's Corner, like
Smarty a John Servis trainee, one in the vast sea of
interchangeable midlevel horses on which Elliott has carved out
a living. "That horse I rode, that was for John," Elliott said.
"It's just customers today. It's taking care of business." How
different is business, he was asked, from riding Smarty Jones?
"If you had a Volkswagen and a Ferrari," he smiled, "which are
you going to take?"
Three days later, last Saturday afternoon, before a record throng
of 112,668 at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Elliott, wearing
the blue-and-white silks of Someday Farm, rode the powerful
chestnut colt Smarty Jones to a breathtaking 11 1/2-length win in
the Preakness. It was the largest margin of victory in the race's
129 runnings, and it made Smarty--who in eight starts now has
eight wins, by a combined 47 1/2 lengths--a prohibitive favorite
to take the Belmont Stakes on June 5 and become racing's first
Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Smarty Jones is a
humble and unlikely supplicant at history's doorstep, a
Pennsylvania-bred stabled at provincial Philadelphia Park, owned
by self-described ham-and-eggers Roy and Pat Chapman, trained by
Servis and ridden by Elliott, moderately successful hard knockers
both, but little known outside mid-Atlantic racing circles.
Elliott's path, it became clear last week, has been the most
tortuous. Born in Toronto, he emigrated to Hong Kong at the age
of seven with his parents, Dennis and Myhill, so his father could
ride there. Like many jockeys, Dennis struggled to keep his
weight down. "He would be out jogging, then get in the car with
the heater running," Stewart says. "Or he would come home and get
right in the bathtub, filled with hot water and epsom salts, plus
he would have an electric heater in there, with a towel under the
door." When Stewart was 11, his father passed out during a steam
session and fell against the bathroom door, his body holding it
closed. "I remember my mom coming into the kitchen, saying, 'Help
me, help me!'" Stewart says. "We got the door open to where I was
small enough to get inside. I remember his eyes were back in his
head. That's when he quit riding. He was fighting it too much. He
almost killed himself."
May 24, 2004
When Stewart was 12, the Elliotts moved to northern New Jersey
and bought a 25-acre farm. Myhill gave riding lessons, and Dennis
turned to training. Soon Stewart was urging his parents to let
him quit school so he could devote more time to riding. He was an
unenthusiastic student--while autographing a stack of Smarty
Jones caps last week, he said, chuckling, "I never used a pen
this much in school"--and was eager to ride professionally.
"Also, I thought the same thing that happened to my dad would
probably happen to me," he says of battling weight. "That's why I
was eager to start when I was young. I was 100 pounds. My weight
wasn't a problem yet." He started riding at Philly Park, then
blossomed as a bug boy at Atlantic City. With his parents living
45 minutes away, Elliott moved into a 25-foot trailer at a
campground near the track, on his own for the first time in his
life. The older jocks, notably Tony Black, who had run fourth in
the Kentucky Derby in the spring of 1981 aboard Classic Go Go,
were a kind of surrogate family.
"One time in a race, I was in behind some horses, and my horse
wanted to go, and I had nowhere to let him," Elliott recalls.
"Tony was outside of me, and he held me in there. You don't want
to yell or ask for help unless you have to, unless you're going
to go down. And he was just teaching me, you know? Just from
riding with those guys, they made you learn."
Elliott was successful but, like his father, began to struggle
with weight. In the mid-'80s a horse walking to the starting gate
flipped him onto the rail at Calder Race Course. He was sidelined
with a back injury, and his weight ballooned. Unable to control
it, he quit riding for a year and a half, working as an exercise
rider for little pay. He bounced around minor league tracks and,
living a hardscrabble existence, became an alcoholic. That, he
says, was responsible for the criminal record that became public
last week: guilty pleas to simple assault and criminal mischief,
in incidents involving an ex-girlfriend, and aggravated assault,
after he beat an acquaintance with a beer bottle, a pool cue and
a wooden stool. He was fined more than $1,000 for the first
offenses; for the latter he received one year of probation and
was ordered to pay the victim's medical bills. (Last Thursday the
Kentucky Horse Racing Association fined him $1,000 for failing to
disclose the assault charges on his application to ride at
Churchill Downs.) "If it wasn't for Smarty Jones," he said
ruefully last week, "none of it ever would have come up. A lot of
bad things happened in my life that I'm not proud of. I just want
to forget about them and go on."
Elliott went through rehab in the summer of 2000, and soon after,
Danny Dubuc, effectively his sponsor, introduced him to Lauren
Vannozzi, who is now Elliott's fiancee. "I was staying with
Danny," she says, "and I came home and saw this little guy
sitting on the couch. I was like, 'Who the hell are you?' But
being around each other, doing things together, we got close."
His drinking, and the problems it caused, Vannozzi says, are
"done with, taken care of, in the past. Nobody harps on it."
The Chapmans and Servis were aware of Elliott's situation, but
the trainer was so confident of Elliott that he never considered
changing jockeys for the Derby. "I knew what Stew was going
through," says Servis. "Quite frankly it might have been a
blessing in disguise. He opened his eyes, got dedicated and
decided that he wanted to be a top rider." Elliott responded with
a masterly ride at Churchill Downs and was spectacular again at
Pimlico. After a twice-delayed start--Imperialism lost the shoe
on his left foreleg and was returned to the paddock and reshod,
and the fractious Rock Hard Ten was reluctant to load--Smarty,
hammered down at the betting windows to a 3-5 favorite, broke
sharply on top, then conceded the lead to Lion Heart. Under Mike
Smith, Lion Heart raced, as is his preference, three or four
paths off the rail, and Elliott, glued to his right flank, went
wider still around the first turn. But Smarty was moving with an
easy, powerful gallop, and Elliott, unconcerned, wanted only to
give him an unobstructed trip. He remained wide while tracking
comfortable fractions: a half-mile in :47 1/5, six furlongs in
At the 3/8 pole Elliott looked left, saw space and, using
Smarty's exceptional tactical speed, ducked to the rail, slipping
inside Lion Heart and snatching the lead on the far turn. Said
Patrick Biancone, Lion Heart's trainer, "Smarty Jones swallowed
him in two jumps." It was an efficient move, perfectly timed, and
it left Elliott at the top of the stretch with only daylight
between himself and the wire.
Elliott hand-rode Smarty through the stretch, tapping him twice
with a furlong to go, and the colt exploded to win in 1:55 2/5.
That validated his Derby victory, which many felt was aided by a
speed-favoring, front-runner's bias on the sloppy Churchill
track. "If anybody had any doubts, they shouldn't now," said
Jason Orman, the trainer of runner-up Rock Hard Ten.
Nine horses since Affirmed have won the first two legs of the
Triple Crown, including five in the past seven years, only to
fall short in the grueling 1 1/2-mile Belmont. Rock Hard,
freakishly sized at more than 17 hands, and lightly raced--the
Preakness was his fourth start--appears to be Smarty's toughest
obstacle. Excluded from the Derby because of insufficient graded
stakes earnings, Rock Hard overcame not only his misbehavior at
the gate but also getting strung out six-and five-wide around the
turns, to close impressively, two lengths clear of Eddington.
"He's got so much room for improvement," Orman had conceded last
Thursday, "that I don't know if he'll be as good as he can be in
But the spotlight now belongs to Smarty Jones, who with a Belmont
victory would earn a second $5 million bonus (Smarty collected
the first by sweeping Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes and Arkansas
Derby and the Kentucky Derby), thereby becoming the richest
racehorse in history. His backstory strains the limits of
plausibility; his success ennobles the Chapmans and Servis, and
Elliott maybe most of all, who have all walked a difficult road
to stand on the brink of greatness. "When you're starting out,
you have to go through a lot of hardships," Servis says. "When I
left college and went to work for Scotty Schulhofer at Monmouth,
I was living in a room at the end of the barn. Wasn't making much
money. I'd go to the grocery store once a week to stock up on
peanut butter and jelly. But those are the sacrifices you make to
do what you love to do."
Servis paused. "I think this gives everybody hope."
"It might have been a BLESSING IN DISGUISE," Servis says of
Elliott's troubled past. "He opened his eyes, got dedicated and
decided he wanted to be a top rider."
Smarty ducked to the rail, slipping inside Lion Heart and
snatching the lead on the far turn. Said Lion Heart's trainer,
"Smarty Jones SWALLOWED HIM in two jumps."