Derby-Winner Smarty Jones Launched PA’s $5.5 Billion Gambling Industry

Written By Dave Briggs on May 1, 2024 - Last Updated on May 7, 2024
Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott in the winner's circle after winning the 2004 Kentucky Derby. Twenty years to the day after Smarty Jones won the Derby, he is also remembered for launching Pennsylvania's $5.5 billion gambling industry.

Twenty years ago today, a true Philly folk hero named Smarty Jones romped to victory in the slop in the 2004 Kentucky Derby. But his greatest feat likely came just two months later when he was instrumental in bringing casinos to the state.

That’s right—a horse was hugely influential in getting Pennsylvania’s first casino legislation passed. Today, the state’s gambling sector produces revenue of more than $5.5 billion annually.

On July 5, 2004, just 65 days after Smarty Jones won the Derby on May 1, and exactly one month to the day after he failed to win the Triple Crown, finishing second in the Belmont in front of 120,139 fans, the Pennsylvania legislature passed Act 71, the Pennsylvania Racehorse Development and Gaming Act. Most notably, that act brought casinos to Pennsylvania racetracks.

 

Governor Rendell: Smarty Jones helped get casinos across the finish line

Ed Rendell was the Governor of Pennsylvania in 2004. He often credits the popularity of Smarty Jones for helping casino legislation get passed.

At the time, legalized gambling was a tough sell in Pennsylvania — particularly in the more conservative rural areas.

In 2019, Rendell told BloodHorse:

“As Smarty caught fire, and it hit home, he absolutely captured the imagination of the legislature.

“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.'”

From Smarty Jones to $2.2 billion in tax revenue a year

The Pennsylvania Racehorse Development and Gaming Act preserved the state’s horse racing industry. And, it launched a gambling expansion that led to further retail and online casinos and sportsbooks that, today, make Pennsylvania one of the most lucrative gambling regions in North America.

PlayPennsylvania reached out to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board to get an idea how much the state’s entire gambling sector is worth today — minus lotteries, which existed long before Smarty Jones.

The PGCB said that in the fiscal year 2022-23, retail casinos, sports wagering, fantasy contests, and online gambling (casinos, sports betting and poker) produced combined revenue of more than $5.5 billion and tax revenue of more than $2.2 billion.

How and why a horse resonated with Pennsylvania legislators

Smarty Jones resonated with state legislators because he was the ultimate Pennsylvania horse that had the bonus of tapping into Philadelphia’s love of an underdog. Though, to be clear, Smarty Jones was far from an underdog on the track once he rose to fame. He was the 4-1 favorite when it came to 2004 Kentucky Derby betting.

His underdog status had more to do with his background. The journey to the Derby was anything but the typical path of bluebloods, oil barons, sheikhs and six- or seven-figure yearlings.

Smarty Jones had modest, purely-Pennsylvania beginnings.

He is a Pennsylvania-bred horse that was foaled at Roy and Patricia Chapman’s Someday Farm in Chester County, just 50 miles west from Parx Racing (then called Philadelphia Park).

That the Smarty Jones was retained by the Chapmans and not sold at auction captured the hearts of sports-crazy Philadelphians that love nothing more than rooting on their own.

And Smarty Jones was definitely one of their own. He was stabled at Philadelphia Park, a track that rarely produces Derby champions.

Twenty years on, the Smarty Jones story is still one of the best in horse racing

Smarty Jones winning the 2004 Kentucky Derby
(AP Photo/Al Behrman)

That the chestnut colt almost lost an eye in an ugly starting gate accident as a 2-year-old only helped his legend grow. His injuries were so serious the staff at equine surgeon Dr. Patty Hogan’s clinic nicknamed the colt Quasimodo.

Recovery from that accident, on top of his all-Pennsylvania connections was just the beginning of what captivated Philadelphians. What Smarty Jones did on the racetrack was pure magic.

As his on-track exploits grew, Philadelphia fell in love.

Some 10,000 fans turned out to watch the horse train at Philadelphia Park.

Smarty Jones received police escorts and once caused the closure of a section of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Many Philadelphians decorated their homes with signs and the horse’s blue and white colors.

The colt’s trainer, John Servis, threw out the first pitch at a Phillies game.

Smarty Jones was the first horse in 21 years to land on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

And, in the end, Smarty Jones’ connections received over 500,000 pieces of fan mail.

The colt finished his career with a nearly-perfect 8-1 record and earnings of more than $7.6 million. He was retired to stallion duty in Kentucky. Today, he is back in Pennsylvania standing stud at Equistar Farm, 50 miles from where he was foaled.

His only loss came when he was passed by longshot Birdstone just before the wire in the Belmont Stakes. The attendance of more than 120,000 still stands as a modern-day record.

Smarty Jones never raced again.

But exactly one month after that heartbreaking loss, he made up for it by playing a critical role in getting casinos passed in Pennsylvania.

And for that, on the 20th anniversary of his Kentucky Derby triumph, we offer a tip of our Derby hat.

Photo by Ed Reinke / AP Photo
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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in Pennsylvania with an emphasis on online casino, online sports betting and horse racing sectors. He is currently reporting on the gambling industries in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Canada.

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