As the chestnut thoroughbred made his way down the home stretch at the former Philadelphia Park, the excited crowd, in full throat, was on its feet cheering him on, certain of his inevitable destination, the winner’s circle.
The horse was Smarty Jones, Pennsylvania’s most revered race horse — indeed, one the state’s most revered athletes. And on that day, he thrilled the crowd as if the hometown team had just won the World Series or the Super Bowl.
Never mind that on Labor Day 2019, Smarty’s trip to the winner’s circle was far more leisurely than when he won the 2004 Kentucky Derby, then the Preakness Stakes (by a record 11½ lengths) and almost finished the Triple Crown, coming in a valiant second at the Belmont.
On Sept. 2, 2019, Smarty Jones retuned to the track in suburban Philadelphia, now called Parx, where his racing career began. It was his first time there in 15 years, with the honors attendant to a conquering hero. And he brought the fans out in droves.
Just to watch Smarty Jones stroll from the paddock down the stretch to the winner’s circle, fans packed Parx, which now also has a casino. That day it generated what was believed to be the largest Labor Day handle ever there, reportedly at least twice the handle of the previous year with the marquee races being two $300,000 events. The second of those was the appropriately named Smarty Jones Stakes.
Such is the power of Smarty Jones, and such was his influence 15 years ago that, without him, the road to casino gambling in Pennsylvania would have been far more challenging.
It might be difficult to recall today, with commercial and tribal casinos in more than 30 states and online gambling in a steady march from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but legalized gambling was a tough sell in many places in the early 21st century. Pennsylvania was no different. While Philadelphia and Pittsburgh bookend the state, the vast middle is a conservative stronghold and back then there was plenty of resistance to gambling.
At the time, Gov. Ed Rendell was trying to steer legislation for slot machines through the legislature to generate tax revenues. Rendell is a Democrat. The legislature, particularly the state Senate, was controlled narrowly by Republicans whose rural and smaller-town constituents leaned conservative and anti-gambling.
Gaming advocates had to come up with some unifying rationales to swing the handful of votes needed in the state Senate to get slots legislation passed (table games were to come later). Property tax relief was one carrot for taxpayers. Another argument was that slots revenue could go toward propping up the state’s horse racing industry, which was facing stiff competition. The original plan in Pennsylvania was for slots at race tracks.
In the midst of the political wrangling, an unimposing chestnut colt, who was born in Pennsylvania’s Chester County and nearly lost his eye as a 2-year-old in a starting gate accident, bolted onto the scene as a 3-year old. He raced his way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated and into the hearts of Pennsylvanians, including just enough lawmakers to get slots legislation passed. After all, so the reasoning went, wasn’t the business that produced Smarty Jones worth saving?
“As Smarty caught fire, and it hit home, he absolutely captured the imagination of the legislature,” Rendell was quoted as saying in Bloodhorse. “All of a sudden horse racing was big in Pennsylvania, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that Smarty got us the extra votes that we needed down the stretch, and that his tremendous run helped us pass the law.”
Smarty Jones finished his career 8-1. The only loss was the one by a length when longshot Birdstone caught him just before the wire at the Belmont, turning a cheering crowd silent. Hampered by bruising of his ankle bones, Smarty never raced again.
Still, Pennsylvania got its slots at tracks and also at stand-alone casinos. Table games followed and now, there’s sports betting and the full suite of online gaming, including online poker.
Along the way, Pennsylvania horse racing benefitted greatly from casino revenue assistance that funded enriched purses and consequently a robust breeding program that helped the horse industry and attendant agriculture businesses to flourish.
Maybe it would have all happened anyway but without the fervor and home-state pride generated by Smarty Jones, it might have been long delayed. Such is the power of a genuine hero.