Heaven help Philadelphia Park if it ever hosts a race again in which Smarty Jones actually runs.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner did nothing more this morning than slowly gallop 1 1/2 miles around the pretty little track northeast of Philadelphia, and more than 8,500 people jammed in to crane their necks from every available sight line. They cheered, cried, took pictures of the horse, took pictures of TV monitors showing the horse and bought up every souvenir hat and T-shirt they could get their hands on.
Smarty Jones didn't step onto the track until 8:30 a.m., but his legions of fans began to arrive as early as 5 a.m. Traffic at the Street Road entrance to Philadelphia Park off Route 1 backed up more than a mile, creating traffic snarls at intersections as people drove through red lights, desperately trying to get there in time.
With the Belmont Stakes approaching June 5 and Smarty Jones one race from joining Seattle Slew as the only undefeated winner of racing's Triple Crown, the tide of excitement, particularly in the horse's home town, is rising fast.
Trainer John Servis has been holding periodic open forums in the paddock with fans and the media after workouts, and he appeared full of pride at the massive turnout, rivaled at Philadelphia Park only on Pennsylvania Derby day.
"I don't know if I'd use the term overwhelming, but it's a joy to me to see people come out and flock around this horse like they do," Servis said. "It's great for the whole industry, and I just hope it carries on."
The trainer has altered recent plans for Smarty Jones, deciding against shipping to Belmont Park more than a week early to get the colt accustomed to the unique 1 1/2-mile oval. Instead, with the Philadelphia Park backstretch closed in recent days to visitors because of the clamor, Servis will monitor and train Smarty Jones on his home grounds.
"[Belmont Park] is a lot like Pimlico -- I've run a lot of horses there, and I've taken them up the morning of the race, and they've run very good," Servis said. "My horse is doing really good right now, and you know the old saying, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' We're keeping things the way they are."
Which is just fine with the fans. Teri Piecara drove alone 1 1/2 hours from Pittman, N.J., for the workout, even though she had never been to a horse race before.
"This is a chance in a lifetime," Piecara said. "It makes your heart sing. I tried to get friends to come out here, but they said this is the day they sleep in."
Piecara stood on a bench and made quick friends with two strangers, Paul Schulz, a Philadelphia horse player who lays tile in his spare time, and Cecile Balizet, a marketer who drove an hour to the track from Doylestown, Pa.
"I wanted to see the main man," said Balizet, peering through a tiny set of binoculars. "It's a wonderful time for horse racing and all the people connected to it and the regular people. They should celebrate it during a time when a lot of horrible things are going on in the world."
Before Smarty Jones came out, Servis rode onto the track on his pony, Butterscotch, to huge applause. The crowd, near the finish line and winner's circle, stood 10 deep from the rail and stretched the length of the track to the quarter pole.
When exercise rider Pete Van Trump walked Smarty Jones onto the backside, the crowd acted as if he were moments from a match race with Seabiscuit.
"We have a large number of folks here, and we don't want to spook Smarty when he comes down the stretch," pleaded track announcer Pat Cummings. "Be orderly in your cheering."
From the quarter-mile chute at the top of the homestretch, Smarty Jones galloped easily with Van Trump standing high in the irons, not letting the horse unspool his speed.
"You have to watch it with [Smarty Jones] because he wants to train so hard, and you have to watch that he doesn't over-train himself," Servis said. "Today was awesome. I mean, he relaxed so good. I was a little concerned with all the people, but he handled it well."
Racing Notes: After getting beaten by Smarty Jones in two races, Purge came out from under a giant shadow and showed his talent, crushing a deep field to win the Grade II $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park.
The traditional local prep race for the Belmont Stakes, the Peter Pan attracted, among others, Florida Derby winner Friends Lake and Wood Memorial runner-up Master David.
Racing with the pace, Purse, ridden by John Velazquez, took the lead on the turn and drew off to win the 11/8-mile race by 6 3/4 lengths in a fast time of 1 minute 47.98 seconds. Swingforthefences finished second and Master David came from far back for third.
Trainer Todd Pletcher had Purge on the Kentucky Derby trail but backed off after losses to Smarty Jones in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby.
"I thought we were taking an easier route [to Kentucky] going to Arkansas," Pletcher said. "Unfortunately, we ran into the best 3-year-old in the country and probably the best 3-year-old we've seen in a long time. [Purge] is a very good colt. We didn't really plan on running in the Belmont, so we'll play it by ear."