LOUISVILLE, Ky. - When trainer Tom Amoss found out last year he would be working with a colt sired by Smarty Jones, he couldn't wait for the van to arrive at his Churchill Downs barn.
"Smarty was such a good-looking and refined horse and obviously very smart," Amoss said Thursday as he sorted out training schedules in a small stable office just a few yards from his horses. "I had worked as an analyst for the Derby the year he won and he was my pick. I visited [trainer] John Servis the day after the race just to meet Smarty. A great horse."
So, when the van arrived with Smarty's son, Backtalk, and the gangplank was in place, Amoss, an energetic 48-year-old trainer, almost expected another Smarty to emerge into the sunlight and begin his own racing journey. Except that's not the way it works.
"What struck me when he got off the van was that he was nothing like Smarty Jones. He's a bigger, more physically imposing horse," Amoss said. "You can ask how breeding works, but when you put a gene pool together and shake it up, you never know what you're going to get."
Amoss would be plenty happy if Backtalk, the first of the Philadelphia favorite's progeny to enter a Triple Crown race, could replicate Smarty's 2004 Kentucky Derby win. It doesn't always work that way either, though.
A couple of hundred yards away, at the barn of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, another colt - another that would do well to live up to the success of his father - walked to his morning workout. Like Backtalk, Dublin is the chestnut son of a famous chestnut sire, and was regal as he stepped through the puddles of stable row, sending long-tailed barn cats scurrying from his path.
Dublin, also entered in Saturday's 136th running of the Derby, is the son of Afleet Alex, the winner of the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes and another horse that raced with Philadelphia rooting right along.
Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex have each had two crops of offspring make it to the race track. Both have sired winners, including winners of graded stakes. On Saturday, the best two colts from those crops will break from the gate along with 18 other horses and try to negotiate the 11/4 mile race and run themselves into history.
Afleet Alex, owned by the rollicking Cash Is King Stable during his racing career and trained at Delaware Park by Tim Ritchey, is standing stud at Gainesway Farm. Smarty Jones, previously owned by Roy and Pat Chapman and trained at Philadelphia Park by Servis, is at White Chimneys Farm, another Kentucky breeding operation.
Somewhere around 6:26 p.m. on Saturday, one of them might be visited by well-wishers who come to the stall to offer congratulations. Neither Smarty Jones nor Afleet Alex would know exactly why, but as long as the congratulations were accompanied by a carrot it will be appreciated.
Truth be told, if it is Backtalk that breaks through in the Derby, Amoss will be tempted to credit the dam's side of the pedigree. The dam, Apasionata Sonata, was sired by Affirmed, the last winner of the Triple Crown, and Backtalk is built more like that 1978 champion.
"Look at him," Amoss said, pointing to a large poster of Backtalk affixed to the wall above his office desk. "I think there's a lot of Affirmed in his looks. He definitely slants back to his female breeding side in terms of appearance. Obviously, he's got something from both sides of the family, but Smarty was more refined and this horse is bigger and stronger than his dad, although I'd love for him to have his dad's talent."
That hasn't been apparent quite yet. Backtalk won two stakes races as a 2-year-old, then backslid a bit before winning an allowance race in Louisiana to open this season. He followed that by finishing a distant third in the Illinois Derby, which isn't an indication he can handle the distance at Churchill Downs. The track handicapper, similarly unimpressed, made Backtalk as a 50-to-1 longshot in the morning line.
Dublin is getting a bit more respect here, even though he hasn't won a race since September. He did finish a strong third in the Grade I Arkansas Derby in his last race, just a couple of necks off the winner, and finished in the money in two other stakes races this year. Not wins, but nice runs. His morning line is 12-to-1.
"Oh, we're definitely in the mix, and the other trainers know it, too," the garrulous, 73-year-old Lukas said as he leaned against a pristine white railing outside his barn, wearing a pair of fringed leather chaps over his jeans. "We want this one to be the best one for him. He's had excuses in all three races. Of course, we always make excuses for them."
There will be 19 excuses by Saturday evening and one colt (or filly) who finishes the day with roses on his (or her) back. After it is over, the bettors - almost all of them - will look back and try to see what they missed.
If the missing ingredient in the handicapping was pedigree, and if either Backtalk or Dublin is wearing the roses, they won't have to look far. Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex were always hard to miss.
The Smart Money:
Horse-by-horse analysis. C6.
Delaware Park opens Saturday. C6.