06/07/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
Forget what's been happening on FOX. America's newest Idol just may be a horse named Smarty Jones. The scrappy little chestnut colt from the other side of the Thorough-bred tracks—Philadelphia—is the greatest success story to come out of that town since Rocky. He won handily at the Kentucky Derby, then thrilled fans May 15 when he blew away the field with a huge 11½-length victory in the Preakness, the second jewel of racing's Triple Crown. "That horse is as good as I've ever seen," said Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens after losing at the Preakness. "Smarty really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away."
For Smarty—who's also been compared with the legendary Seabiscuit—the real test comes June 5 at the Belmont Stakes in New York. If he wins the grueling mile-and-a-half, he'll be the first to take the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. And it's tough to bet against him after the kind of odds he's already overcome. His first trainer was murdered in a domestic dispute. Smarty then fractured his skull during training. Finally he nearly lost the only jockey who'd ever raced him, Stewart Elliott, when it turned out Elliott had omitted information about pleading guilty to severely beating an acquaintance in 2001 on his license application. (Elliott, now 39 and a recovering alcoholic, blames the incident on his lengthy battle with the bottle.) Says Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell, who was on hand to greet Smarty after the Preakness: "It's an amazing story."
As is that of Smarty's owners Roy "Chappy" Chapman, 78, and his wife, Patricia, 62, recovering alcoholics who met in 1976, when they were introduced by a mutual friend. After they shared years of what seemed a charmed life—foxhunting, deep-sea fishing and running a 100-acre Pennsylvania horse farm—Chappy's emphysema became severe. The couple had to sell all but a few horses. They kept the spunky colt named for Pat's mother, who as a girl was nicknamed Smarty Jones. "I always knew Smarty was a winner," says trainer John Servis, 45. "But I didn't anticipate just how absolutely magical it would be."