Mention the name Smarty Jones and a big, broad smile spreads across the face of Mark McDermott.
Sitting in his Kennett Square office, McDermott reminisces about Smarty Jones’ run to glory during the Triple Crown series three years ago. Though denied racing immortality by coming up a length short in the Belmont Stakes, the Chester County-bred colt helped deliver an even bigger prize for Pennsylvania horse racing-- the windfall of slot machines.
“Smarty’s story helped push some of the legislators who were sitting on the fence over in favor of it,” said McDermott.
McDermott has been the executive secretary of the Pennsylvania Horsemen?s Breeders Association (PHBA) for more than 30 years. Local horseman Russell Jones recruited the affable Irishman from New Orleans where he worked as the editor of Louisiana Horse. Today, his office oversees the administration, promotion and maintenance of the official registry of PA-bred racehorses and Pennsylvania stallions.
Next Saturday, PHBA stages the seventh edition of Pennsylvania’s Day at the Races at Philadelphia Park. More than $1 million in purses will be available for PA-breds in the eleven race card, including the inaugural running of the $125,000 Smarty Jones Classic, a mile and a sixteenth test for 3-year-olds and upward.
Eight other races at $100,000 each, including four separate events for Pennsylvania-bred, Pennsylvania-sired horses, plus a $75,000 steeplechase race will make the day the richest race card for thoroughbreds ever offered in the state.
“We’re setting up trackside barbeque with a big tent down by the paddock close to the finish line,? said McDermott. “We’e putting our best foot forward. It’s historical day for us. A million dollars, that’ a lot.”
Breeders, stallion owners and owners of PA-bred horses will all share in Saturday’ jackpot. Established in 1974, the Pennsylvania Breeders Fund is financed by one percent of any thoroughbred wager that originates in the state.
In 2006 the fund paid out a healthy $7.8 million to Pennsylvania-bred winners. The total is expected to rise to $15.5 million this year and $19 million in 2008. When the slots are fully on-line at the 14 venues across the state, the fund could soar to $25 million,
Primarily foaled in Chester, Bucks, Dauphin and York Counties, the state produced 850-900 thoroughbreds each year from 2000 through 2005. Last year it jumped to 1150. This year the numbers are projected to hit 1400 while 1600 are forecast in 2008.
Currently the best stallions are 1998 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Real Quiet and Siphon, who won a pair of Grade-1 stakes and earned $3 million.
Stud fees for both are $5,000. That pales in comparison to Kentucky-based studs. 2005 dual classic winner Afleet Alex gets $40,000. McDermott related that he has had talks with several parties about relocating high-profile stallions to the region.
“If there is a soft spot in the program,”McDermott said, “It’s owning a top stallion that will stand in Pennsylvania and be very popular.”
In the racing game, that’s the place where the opportunity for owners/breeders is the greatest.
Danzig Dynasty Marches On
Long before there was a Hard Spun, there was his daddy, Danzig.
Born and raised at Derry Meeting Farm in Cochranville, Danzig is recognized as one of thoroughbred racing’s most influential sires. He sired 199 stakes winners including 46 Grade-1 winners.
How good was Danzig? Today, the gold standard for stakes winners is six percent from foals. At the time of his death at age 29 in January 2006, Danzig topped the list of North American sires at a whopping 18 percent.
Foaled in March 1977, Danzig was a bay colt with a splash of white on his forehead. He was co-bred by partners William Farish and the late Marshall Jenney, owner of Derry Meeting.
“I can still see him in the stall where he was foaled,” recalled Marshall’s wife Bettina. “Danzig was just the most beautiful foal.”
The Jenneys’ good friend and client George Strawbridge, Jr. talked about his first encounter.
“I remember being at dinner over at Marshall’s and he kept going on about this colt with the best temperament he’d ever seen and insisting he would be a sales topper at Saratoga,” said Strawbridge with a laugh.
“We go out to the barn and here’s Danzig lying down in the stall. Marshall goes in and sits on him. Now Marshall is a big, big man and he is in there, straddling the colt. Danzig just looked up at him, hardly even moved.”
Danzig was sold at the 1978 Saratoga Yearling Sale for $310,000. Trained by Woody Stephens, he was unbeaten in a three races showing freakish speed and power. When a slab fracture of the knee ended his racing career, Owner Henryk de Kwiatkowski sent him to stud at Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky.
The most influential son of the legendary stallion Northern Dancer, Danzig first stood for $20,000. His fee at the end of his career had soared to $250,000, no guarantee. He was the leading American sire in 1991, 1992, and 1993 and topped some sires list internationly as well.
“Marshall wanted him to come back to Derry Meeting, but he needed to be in Kentucky,” Bettina said. “They syndicated him for $80,000 a share. I think they all got a pretty good deal.”
Only two stallions worldwide have sired more stakes winners-- Danzig’s son Danehill and his brother Sadler’s Wells. However, both have benefited from the institution of dual-hemisphere breeding that allowed the stallions to cover 200 mares or more over the course of a year.
During Danzig’s stud career at Claiborne, he never covered more than 75 mares, and only four times covered 70 or more mares, according to Gus Koch, who managed Danzig his entire stallion career at Claiborne.
Koch told the Daily Racing Form, “That’s the way it was here with Mr. Prospector and Nijinsky, and that probably had a big influence on the longevity of their stallion’s careers.”
Through his 24 crops of foal, Danzig has produced 663 winners. And his champion sons and grandsons have passed on the magic,
His colts and fillies are known for racing on dirt and turf, and at sprint or classic distances.
“He was the second coming of Northern Dancer,” said bloodstock agent Brian O’Rourke. “His offspring have proven over and over they can carry their speed at a distance.”
In Danzig’s 27th year he produced Hard Spun. Born at Betty Moran’s Brushwood Stable, Hard Spun’s toughness and versatility is a rare commodity in racing these days. He has competed in 12 races over the past 12 months. He has excelled at distances from 5 ½ furlongs to 1-¼ miles. He runs hard every step of the way and finished in the top three in all but one race.
The speedy colt looks better now than he has all year. On October 27 he tangles with the best in the business in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in what could be his final race before heading off to the breeding shed.
Perhaps Danzig’s last gifted American son will deliver something special.