More than a Horse, of Course

God Places a Bet at the Kentucky Derby

Smarty Jones, your 2004 Kentucky Derby champion, is God’s Horse.

Seabiscuit for the new millenium
You see a horse like that and a story like this maybe once in a lifetime. Twice, if you’ve seen Seabiscuit.

Smarty came to the party with a trainer, a jockey, and a couple of owners who had never been to the Kentucky Derby before. He lined up in the starting gate with seventeen other horses who cost more, were bred better, and were backed by connections who had been through this ten, twenty, fifty times before.

He won.

God’s horse
Kentucky Derby winners are named Secretariat… Affirmed… War Admiral. Not “Smarty Jones.” Not something that sounds like it just fell out of the comics page.

Humble and scoffed at: Just the way God likes it.

Not yet
The man who brought together the sire and dam (mother and father) of Smarty Jones was murdered, along with his wife, just before the colt was born. Smarty Jones’ owners—a used car salesman and a social worker—were so devastated that they seriously considered leaving racing altogether. After all, they were just small-time owners who weren’t winning all that much.

But in the foal’s tentative first steps, they found hope.

An eyeful of pain
Smarty almost did himself in as a two-year-old, rearing as he stood in the green, narrow filing cabinet that is a racetrack’s starting gate. He slammed his head against a metal bar, injuring his eye so badly that his new trainer could hardly bear to look at him. Tissue swelled three inches over his eye.

And yet, God wasn’t done with Smarty Jones.

Odds on
Smarty healed. Smarty started running. Smarty started winning.

And winning.

He won each and every race he entered, and when he had at last gathered enough winnings to assure himself a place in the Kentucky Derby, wiser heads called upon the trainer to replace his small-track jockey with somebody else. Perhaps a jock who had already won a Derby, whose nerves wouldn’t ruin the chances of the miracle horse. At least use a jock who had run at Churchill Downs before. The best of the best had certainly made their interest known.

Nope, said the trainer. Sometimes underdogs can get the job done as well as the kings.

Does any of this sound familiar? Open the Bible up to the stories of the patriarch Joseph, or the prophet Moses, or Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel, or the Virgin Mary, or King David (of Goliath fame).

Miracle mud
Smarty Jones is what racing folks refer to as “a mudder”: He runs well on sloppy tracks. He does not care for well-groomed dirt. Where many beautifully bred, delicate Thoroughbreds swim, unsure of catching their dainty footing on a sticky track, Smarty Jones charges. He’s a blue collar, down-and-dirty muck-pusher.

Only four of the past 130 Kentucky Derbies have started on a muddy track. And on May 1, 2004, it rained and rained and rained in Louisville, drenching the dirt, flattening the ladies’ fine hats.

Smarty Jones ran and won.

The little horse danced sideways as the blanket of roses was draped over his back. He was uncomfortable with such finery.

Just what we needed
Sometimes heroes arrive in a flash of glory, a dazzling array of white armor and blazing special effects. And sometimes they arrive beaten, bloodied, spattered with mud… and just in time.