Monday, August 2, 2004 Updated: August 3, 11:17 AM ET
Smarty suffering from chronic bruising
By Ed McNamara Special to ESPN.com
Nothing great lasts as long as we want it to, especially in the world of thoroughbreds. Add Smarty Jones to the never-ending list of great horses whose careers ended prematurely because of injury.
Smarty Jones (left) fell short of winning this year's Triple Crown.
Philadelphia's four-legged Rocky has run his last race. On Monday afternoon, co-owners Roy and Patricia Chapman announced that their colt would be retired to stud at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky because of deep bone bruises on the cannon bones in all four legs.
"This has been a very difficult decision," Patricia Chapman said on a conference call with racing writers. "We know that the public, not just the racing fans, wanted to see him run again. But if anything else went wrong, it would break our hearts."
Roy Chapman, who also bred the colt, agreed. "I'm just heartsick about it, but I think we're making the right decision to retire him."
The common ankle injuries are neither life-threatening nor career-threatening, according to Dr. Larry Bramlage, one of the world's most esteemed veterinary surgeons. Bramlage called Smarty Jones' problems "relatively minor" and traced them to the stress of nine races in eight months, including seven in five months from early January through the Belmont Stakes in early June.
"Prognosis for a full recovery is excellent," Bramlage said. "There's really nothing to worry about. He had nine hard races in eight months, and this kind of accumulated inflammation is why athletes can't stay at a peak every time.
"There are no structural problems, and the injury would have cleared up with rest."
Unfortunately, the timing of the problem eliminated any chance that Smarty Jones could pursue a summer and fall campaign that would have culminated with a bid for Horse of the Year in the Breeders' Cup Classic Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park. Trainer John Servis already had ruled out this Sunday's Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park and the Sept. 6 Pennsylvania Derby, and most observers were not surprised by the retirement announcement.
Bramlage compared the fetlock joint to a shock absorber that was worn down.
"Horses need a break," he said. "He's had a season's worth of work, and this comes at a bad time of the year. We bring horses back from this all the time, and the return percentage is high. Ninety percent of them will come back as good as they were. But it takes around two months and sometimes three months to recover."
Even if Smarty Jones had been ready to race in early October, it would have been impossible for Servis to get him ready for the Classic off a five-month layoff with such little preparation time. With the rest of this racing year crossed off, a decision had to be made on whether to try to run him next year as a 4-year-old or retire him to stallion duty.
The Chapmans and Robert Clay, president of Three Chimneys, decided they didn't want to lose a breeding season next spring by keeping the colt in training for 2005.
Clay said he received a call Friday from Servis, who gave him the details about Smarty Jones' foot troubles. "I think it was [the Chapmans'] inclination that they didn't want to take any chances."
No stud fee has been set for Smarty Jones, who won 8 of 9 races and earned more than $7 million, including a $5-million bonus for sweeping Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby. Not since Seattle Slew in 1977 had an unbeaten horse won the Derby, and fittingly Smarty Jones will live in the late Seattle Slew's former stall at Three Chimneys.
The chestnut colt foaled at the Chapmans' Someday Farm in New Hope, Pa., was destined to become America's Horse and an international celebrity. After his record-setting, 11½-length runaway in the Preakness, Smarty became a cult figure for millions, including many who had never even bet on a horse.
More than 120,000 fans flooded Belmont Park on June 5, anticipating a victory lap and a coronation. Instead it was a bitter disappointment for the biggest crowd ever to witness a sporting event in New York. The 35-1 shot Birdstone passed Smarty Jones only 70 yards before the wire, and immortality and a Triple Crown were denied.
Minutes later, Servis promised that his star would be back and would do great things. Too bad that won't happen.
"It's hard," Servis said Monday. "We had a great ride with him. The thing that bothers me is that people didn't get to see how great he really was. I think the Preakness was just the tip of the iceberg.
"It just seemed like there was no bottom to him. There are some skeptics out there, but if we had been able to bring him back to the races, he might have been the best of all time.
"He might have been better than any of them."
We'll never know.