LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Here we go again.
A nice but hardly heralded horse wins the Kentucky Derby. That’s what happened last year with Funny Cide, and it happened again Saturday with Smarty Jones.
Splashing his way past Lion Heart in the stretch, the 3year-old chestnut colt won America’s premier horse race and is well on his way to winning racing fans’ hearts.
‘‘He seems to be the people’s horse,’’ Derby rookie rider Stewart Elliott said, echoing the sentiments of those who watched Funny Cide go for the Triple Crown last year.
The victory triggered the biggest payday in the sport, with the undefeated favorite earning a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park along with the Derby winner’s share of $854,800.
Smarty Jones ran his record to 7-for-7 and became the first unbeaten Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977. Seattle Slew went on to win the Triple Crown, a feat Smarty Jones will attempt when he heads to the Preakness in two weeks.
‘‘I don’t think this horse has ever got the respect he was due,’’ 77-year-old owner Roy Chapman said.
Probably because his story is a doozy.
Smarty is a Pennsylvaniabred who nearly died when he slammed his head on an iron bar; his trainer and jockey are based at a small-time park; his owners refused a blank check to sell him.
He doesn’t have the regal bearing of a champion. He’s smallish and has goofy bangs that brush the top of his eyes. But nothing has stopped him so far.
Even over a sloppy track at Churchill Downs — the first in 10 years — Smarty Jones raced just behind pace-setter Lion Heart. As the 18-horse field came off the final turn, the colt moved up to challenge for the lead. Under Elliott, Smarty Jones staged his patented stretch surge with an eighth of a mile to go and pulled away.
He won by 2 3 /4 lengths over Lion Heart, with Imperialism, trained by 21-year-old Kristin Mulhall, third.
Elliott said that at the three-eighths pole, ‘‘I knew I had a loaded gun beneath me.
‘‘When I had the chance, I took it. I was pretty confident when we passed Lion Heart,’’ he said.
The winning time for the 1 1 /4-mile Derby was a slow 2:04.06 over the fourth sloppy track in Derby history. Though it didn’t rain during the race, there was a downpour two hours earlier that left the track a muddy mess and filled the infield with small lakes.
That his first Derby was raced over slop hardly mattered to winning trainer John Servis: ‘‘That was a beautiful race. Picture perfect.’’
Mike Smith, aboard Lion Heart, concurred: ‘‘I had a great trip, but Smarty Jones just had another gear.’’
Servis and Elliott, a pair of Philadelphia Park regulars, became the first trainer-jockey duo to win the Derby on their first try since favorite Spectacular Bid won in 1979 for trainer Bud Delp and jockey Rodney Franklin.
And even though the favorite won, until the gates opened, the race was considered a wide- open affair with at least a half dozen horses capable of winning.
In the stands, Chapman got out of his wheelchair and shouted, ‘‘I can’t believe it!’’ and accepted hugs from Servis, friends and relatives. Chapman, hooked up to an oxygen tank because of his emphysema, then sat back down, taking deep breaths to calm himself, but smiling the whole time.
‘‘We’ve never raced at this level,’’ said Chapman, a retired auto dealer who got into the horse business in the mid 1980s.
Chapman and his wife, Pat, will now collect a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., because their horse swept the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.
With the huge payoff, Smarty Jones becomes racing’s sixth richest horse.