Elliott rides on
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
BALTIMORE -- It was a sultry Thursday afternoon at ramshackle Atlantic City Racecourse in tiny McKee City, N.J., where a few thousand people turned out for a nine-race, all-turf card, sort of a workingman's Royal Ascot. Once upon a time, what happened at Atlantic City mattered, but that was before casinos started popping up a few miles down the road in the late 1970s. Handicapping thoroughbreds is a lot tougher than pulling the handle on a slot machine, and now the track stages only five live cards a year, the minimum needed to allow year-round simulcasting.
But this time there was a buzz around the paddock, and not for any of the washy, run-of-the-mill horses being saddled. There was a new celebrity with a familiar face in the midst of the fans, and they saluted Stewart Elliott. A banner in the funky old grandstand announced that Elliott would be riding there, and he got the star treatment.
"Go get 'em, Stewart!" a sunburned man shouted. "All the way with Smarty Jones!" yelled another. Elliott smiled and obliged autograph seekers and enriched many of them by finishing first with two of his five mounts. That was old hat for Elliott, a winner of more than 3,000 races. Yet his victory two weeks ago at Churchill Downs did infinitely more for his Q-rating and changed his life more than anything he'd ever done.
On Friday, Elliott spoke of the price of newfound fame in a news conference in the press box at Pimlico, where on Saturday he will ride Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones in the 129th running of the Preakness Stakes.
"It's just so time-consuming,'' Elliott said of the obligations to deal with the media that are inevitable for a Derby winner, especially one who had no national profile. "I'm trying to handle it, and I do what I can. It keeps you busy, and I already have a very busy schedule."
The attention inevitably dredged up a nasty incident that no one would want scrutinized. Four years ago, Elliott pleaded guilty to an assault charge in New Jersey after being charged with beating a man with a beer bottle, pool cue and a wooden stool. Elliott served 10 months probation, during which time he lost his riding license. He failed to mention the conviction when he applied for a license to ride in the Kentucky Derby.
". . . I kind of thought they might dig up some of my bad stuff," Elliott said Friday. "I have nothing to hide. I've had a lot of personal problems, and I've done some things that I'm not proud of, but that's behind me. I just want to look ahead to the future, and hopefully all that mess is behind me."
Elliott admitted he is a recovering alcoholic, and said he's been sober for the past 3½ years, during which he's been the leading rider in Pennsylvania for three years. He's well on his way to a fourth state title.
"All of the [problems] were because of alcohol," he said. "The people I was with, they were all the same."
After dealing with personal demons, handling the pressures of riding an unbeaten potential Triple Crown winner seem less of a burden. Elliott turned in a textbook ride in the Derby under the most excruciating pressure of his 39-year-old existence. He seemed calm as he looked ahead to the Preakness. He agreed with trainer John Servis, his hunting and fishing buddy, that this could be Smarty's biggest challenge of the spring.
"My horse has been running strong the last few races, but you always have to worry about the fresh horses," Elliott said. "I expect a big effort, but this will probably be his toughest race so far.''
Smarty Jones is an aggressive colt who relaxed well behind pacesetter Lion Heart in the Derby. There is nothing more dangerous than a horse with tactical speed that can be controlled.
"In the beginning, he was a little tough to ride, and then he kept getting better," Elliott said. "Derby Day was his first time on Lasix. He was learning all along, and I think that the Lasix made him more relaxed and push-button."
Elliott rode Friday at Pimlico, where he's competed many times, and he outlined his approach to the big race. "Tonight I'll study the race and get an idea of the other horses' running styles, and tomorrow I'll be ready to roll."