Elliott's ride of a lifetime
By ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun
The dream could have flickered when, as a child, he watched his father torture himself daily to "make weight" -- a jockey's term for rapidly shedding pounds.
Stewart Elliott could have ended his riding career in the early 1980s when his own weight ballooned and he lacked the will to get it in check.
Then in the summer of 2000, the Toronto-born jockey almost saw a middling life crash when he nearly beat a man to death in a drunken rage.
But instead of rotting in a jail cell somewhere in New Jersey where the attack took place, Elliott is playing a lead role in the smash-hit story of Smarty Jones.
Early Saturday evening in the Belmont Stakes here at Long Island's sprawling Belmont Park, the 39-year-old Elliott will climb on the back of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner and attempt to guide him home as racing's 12th Triple Crown champion.
He'll have huge rooting support at Woodbine where his uncle, Bill Stewart, is a trainer and most everyone on the backstretch knows Elliott's mom, Myhill, Bill's assistant.
In the jockey's room at the Etobicoke track they'll be cheering, too, riding along with an ordinary guy who, like them, once could only dream of such success.
That there were long odds against Elliott ever being where he is today adds to the depth of his story and the notion of chasing one's dream, no matter how pie in the sky.
"When most jockeys start their careers, they dream about winning some races, making a living and (staying) healthy and safe," Elliott said this week.
"After you accomplish that, you start dreaming about the 'big horse.' To be honest with you, I was always happy being a big fish in a small pond. I've had a pretty good career, but since Smarty came along, life is a whole lot better."
Before Smarty came along, there was ample evidence that Elliott could ride a horse, as he won more than 3,000 races in 20 years of competition. It's just that outside of his current home, Philadelphia Park, and the hard-core gamblers who bet on the cheap races there, not many had heard of him.
Few knew of Smarty Jones, either. But should the undefeated three-year-old make it nine in a row in the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion," the horse, and everyone associated with him, will be world famous.
"Smarty Jones is the people's horse, it's the poor man getting to the top and that's what everyone likes to see," Bill Stewart said. "It shows it can happen to the little guy.
"The whole racetrack here at Woodbine is rooting for him from jockeys to exercise riders to trainers."
Stewart plans to gather with his family -- many related to Elliott -- on Saturday afternoon for a pizza party. It worked for the first too legs and they desperately hope it will again.
"We're already getting nervous," Stewart said with a laugh.
Should he win, Elliott would become the fourth jockey with Canadian ties to ride a Triple Crown champ. The most famous, of course, was New Brunswick native Run Turcotte, who guided the great Secretariat in 1973.
"There are a lot of great riders in Canada," Turcotte said. "I rode against Robin Platts and Sandy Hawley and there were no better riders than them.
"Stewart can ride. It's something we all take pride in -- Canadians proving themselves as great riders."
Elliott almost never had the chance after hitting rock bottom four years ago. The details of the incident came to light after his Derby win. According to police reports, Elliott beat a man with a pool cue, a beer bottle and a stool. He was arrested and charged with assault, eventually settling out of court.
Soon after, Elliott entered rehab. He said he has drawn sober breath ever since.
"The booze got a hold of him and that was it," Stewart said. "It was a drastic thing. The kid admits he made a mistake and got the scare of his life. He's not making excuses and will regret it for the rest of his life, but he's going forward.
"He couldn't handle the booze. He knows he could have went to jail, he could have killed the guy. He was all right before he started drinking and he's all right now."
Elliott certainly isn't the first jockey to battle the bottle and, just like in racing itself, there are winners and losers. Pat Day and Jerry Bailey, two of racing's top jocks, are both recovering alcoholics. Chris Antley, who died in 1999 after a lifetime of substance abuse, is one who lost.
To his credit, when questioned about his life the day before the Preakness, Elliott was adamant that his demons were in his past. Soft-spoken and with a quick smile, he has handled his new-found attention admirably.
"I did some things I'm not proud of," he said in Baltimore, "but that's behind me."
It has been quite a journey to get here, too, one that began as a toddler roaming around Woodbine with his parents.
When his father, Dennis, and Myhill decided to chase the former's riding dream, the family pulled up stakes and moved to Hong Kong when Elliott was seven. They eventually returned, settling first near Boston. Stewart was exercise riding by the time he was 12 or 13 and in races by age 16.
He was a hit in Boston and later in Monmouth Park, N.J. Never a superstar jockey competing for the glory on horse racing's biggest days, Elliott was a success just the same.
"What you people are seeing now is something I've seen for years," Smarty Jones' trainer, John Servis, said.
Dennis Elliott eventually gave up riding and fighting his weight and has long since split from Stew's mom. He operates a small breeding farm in Ocala, Fla.
Myhill eventually returned to work with brother Bill at Woodbine where she is still employed. She has been on a five-week leave of absence, however, helping the son she still calls "my baby" deal with new-found fame and the price that comes with it.
"She has been a big help to him," Bill Stewart said. "Stew and his mother are very close."
Close to history, too. Just as there is some scrappiness in Smarty Jones, a common Pennsylvania-bred overachiever, both horse and jockey are on the brink of a special place.
"They're both tough customers," Servis said. "Both have been given a second chance and made the best of it. Where they are today is a feather in their caps."