Smarten came inquiringly to the door of his stall at New York's Belmont Park as if answering a knock, and thrust his chocolate-colored nose into the arms of Woody Stephens. The colt is an amiable sort, a dark bay with attentive ears and luminous eyes. His coat was dappling in the morning light. The trainer patted his neck, then tickled his chin. Smarten half-shut his eyes, like a cat that is being stroked to sleep, but it was Stephens who was doing all the purring.
"Just everywhere he's been, he's done it for us," Stephens said. "This horse has come a long way; he's come into his own. If we had pushed him in on top of these better 3-year-olds too early in the year, he just might not have come into himself. He's built up confidence in himself. He's never yet made the lead and lost; anytime he's gotten there, he's stayed there. You take a horse that has won five straight stakes, like this horse, and he's got to believe in himself enough, wouldn't you think so? I was able to take my time with him. And I think we've done right with him."
If 65-year-old Woody Stephens is right, if a racehorse gains confidence through winning, there is probably no 3-year-old colt in America quite as sold on himself at the moment as Smarten. For while Spectacular Bid, Golden Act, General Assembly, Flying Paster and Screen King were having at each other in the spring classics. Smarten was enriching himself as the star of the liveliest sideshow in the game.
Smarten has started nine times this year, at nine different racetracks. Since May 5 he has won five in a row, including four $100,000-plus derbies, to push his earnings for the year to $412,640, second only to Spectacular Bid's $771,383 among 3-year-old colts. He earned this remarkable sum while dodging, quite artfully. Bid's imposing figure and finding softer spots.
Stephens' plotting of his career is a textbook example of how to train, manage and campaign a 3-year-old who, early in the year, appears to be a cut below the very best of his generation. Conditioning draws the most attention—has this horse done enough, that horse too much?—but a more revealing test of a trainer's aptitude lies in how he manages a horse's campaign, whether he spots him right or overmatches him. The road through the spring classics annually is littered with formerly useful horses who have been wrung out or ruined by meeting superior horses at long distances.
Had he sent Smarten after Spectacular Bid this spring, Stephens believes he would not have the horse he has today. Not that the decision to avoid Bid was entirely a product of design. Smarten had won $77,993 as a 2-year-old, including a stakes in Maryland, and in the new year he showed signs that he might be a contender in the classics. In January he finished third in the Tropical Park Derby, but in that race he beat Davona Dale, the best filly in the country right now. However, in the process he suffered a quarter crack in his left front hoof—part of his hoof split to the hairline, a painful injury—forcing Stephens to stop for repairs. Stephens had the youngster fitted with a Bane patch—a fiber-glass patch designed to hold the hoof together while the injury heals—and gave Smarten all the time he needed to recuperate. On Feb. 15, the day nominations were due for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, Stephens, who won the '74 Derby with Cannonade, didn't name Smarten. "I thought he couldn't get back to serious training for 60 days," he says. And after what he saw of Spectacular Bid, Stephens was in no hurry for Smarten to hook him. He saw Bid win the Florida Derby, the race in which Jockey Ronnie Franklin gave him four excuses to get beat, and that was enough for Woody. "That was the key," he says. "That race was what made me back away. With as much bad luck as he had, he beat those horses easily."
At the time Smarten did not belong in the company of Bid. But the colt (by Cyane-Smartaire) responded sooner than Stephens had expected, and in late March he made his first start in more than two months, in an allowance race at Hialeah. He finished fourth, beaten almost 10 lengths, but he came back bouncing to the shed. Picking his spots, Stephens decided to send Smarten to Hot Springs for the Arkansas Derby. He just missed, with Golden Act charging past him in the final eighth to beat him a neck. Encouraged, Stephens shipped him to New York for the Wood Memorial. He finished fourth, beaten just half a length, after he was blocked and forced to check several times. "Should've won it," Woody says.
Now the fun began, a traveling road show like no other in the game, two men and a horse. Groom Ben Riley and the colt's English-born exercise boy, Phil Gleaves, accompanied him everywhere. "A great traveling companion," says Gleaves. "Nothing bothers him. It's just Ben, myself and him." Woody had them vanned to Pimlico following the Wood, and on the day Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby, Smarten took the $50,000-added Woodlawn on the grass at Pimlico, winning by six lengths. He left town as Spectacular Bid was arriving for the Preakness. Stephens still could have supplemented Smarten in the Preakness and the Belmont, but having seen the Derby on television, he thought Bid was not a horse to tangle with. Robert Kirkham, a lumber distributor from Mutton-town, N.Y., who owns the colt with Jim Ryan, a builder from Columbia, Md., concurred. So Smarten was off to Chicago for the $150,000-added Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park. He won by five, running the 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬µ miles in 1:49⅖ just a tick off the track mark, and earned $91,710. That same afternoon Spectacular Bid romped in the Preakness.
Stephens fetched his colt home to Belmont from Chicago. Kirkham wanted to run him in the Belmont, but the trainer's judgment prevailed. Stephens looked at it this way: Spectacular Bid had run superbly in the Preakness and looked unbeatable at Belmont Park; Smarten had never even been a mile and a quarter, much less the Belmont distance of a mile and a half. There was a rich pot for the plucking in the $100,000-added Pennsylvania Derby on May 28 at Keystone Racetrack in Pennsylvania, and another in the $150,000-added Ohio Derby eight days after the Belmont. "If I ran in the Belmont, I'd have to miss those two," he says. "I'd have had to win the Belmont to come out ahead."
The logic seemed irrefutable. So Stephens shipped Smarten to Keystone to face five virtual unknowns. Under Sam Maple, his regular rider, the colt won by three, earning a purse of $68,880.
Next, Smarten flew to Cleveland for the Ohio Derby, and won that easily, by eight, beating a colt called Bold Ruckus. His purse was $90,000. Then Stephens sent Smarten back to Chicago for the $106,000 American Derby, at a mile and a quarter, at Arlington Park. Nothing of merit faced Smarten, and he won with authority. The prize was $63,600. The trainer was like a kid in the candy store holding five lollipops at once.
But things promise to get more demanding for Smarten this summer and fall. Stephens is aiming for the Travers at Saratoga next month and the stiffer competition it could offer—perhaps even Spectacular Bid and Davona Dale.
The colt has certainly earned the chance to meet them, and Stephens plans to give it to him. What he has is a relatively fresh horse who was not wrung out chasing Bid, who has won his races decisively and who goes to Saratoga a better horse than he was six months ago. And a horse, as Stephens says, with confidence. Not to mention almost half a million in the bank. "Keep yourself in good company and your horse in bad company," Trainer Frank Whiteley says. "That's the secret of the game." Stephens, whose horses have won more than 1,200 races and more than $16 million in purses since he began training in 1938, knows it well.
Smarten has won five straight and $412,640 this year.