Will 'Smarty' make an even dozen?
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
He's done nothing wrong while dominating overmatched rivals, and he's one win away from immortality. He'll be heavily favored to become only the second undefeated Triple Crown champion. So just how good is Smarty Jones, and will he enter the thoroughbred pantheon late in the afternoon on June 5 at Belmont Park?
Still, unless he's coming down with a virus or gets hurt during the running, it's hard to envision Smarty Jones losing "The Test of the Champion." Then again, six weeks ago he wasn't on top of anybody's list of leading Kentucky Derby contenders. Few expected him to coast in the Derby and Preakness, and he did. Now almost nobody thinks he'll lose. It would be shocking, but it could happen.
He could get banged around coming out of the gate or heading into the first turn. He could get rank and refuse to settle for jockey Stewart Elliott and burn himself out by running too fast too early. Chances are that he won't do that, though, since he's been a model of cool and tractability this spring. Smarty Jones has the two most dangerous assets a thoroughbred can have, speed that can be controlled and quick acceleration. At Churchill Downs and Pimlico, he sat behind the pacesetter, Lion Heart, until Elliott said go, and Smarty Jones soon blew open the race and cruised to easy wins.
If he runs his race again in the Belmont, he'll make his move on the far turn, take the lead turning for home and hear more than 120,000 fans go berserk as he races into the record books. If he can do that, then horse-racing historians will begin to measure his accomplishments against the 11 other Triple Crown winners.
Even if he wins more major races after the Belmont, it will be very difficult for Philadelphia's favorite son to approach the stature of Secretariat, Citation, Seattle Slew, Count Fleet and Affirmed. As for the others, they'd certainly be within reach if Smarty rolls through his 3-year-old season undefeated and holds his awesome form next year, too.
Here's my take on the 11 Triple Crown winners:
1. Secretariat. Widely considered the greatest horse of the 20th Century, Big Red set the standard for 3-year-old greatness in the 1973 Triple Crown. He set track records in the Derby and Belmont and would have set one in the Preakness if not for a timing malfunction. Don't ever expect another horse to win the Belmont by 31 lengths in 2:24. Like Woody Stephens' five consecutive Belmont wins from 1982-86, Secretariat's records in the Triple Crown finale will never be broken.
2. Citation. Many old-timers ranked this all-conquering machine up there with Secretariat. In 1997 I interviewed Citation's trainer, the late Jimmy Jones, who thought his horse was better. "Secretariat?" he said with contempt. "He couldn't handle a wet track. Citation could run on anything, he could sprint and he could go long." Jones was right, and Citation was tireless. He was 14-for-16 with two seconds before ruling the 1948 Triple Crown by a combined 17 lengths.
3. Seattle Slew. The speedy Slew, the only horse to sweep the classics while undefeated, was wired and inspired, the ultimate Alpha male. He was heavily favored in all but one of his 17 career starts, of which he won 14. Like Man o' War, he was "a living flame." His greatness continued in the breeding shed, where he was the best sire among all of the Triple Crown winners.
4. Count Fleet. The Count was never headed throughout the 1943 Triple Crown, which he capped by taking a three-horse Belmont by 25 lengths at odds of 1-20. The chart said he was galloping, so he might have won by 30 if he'd been pushed. Had he not run during World War II, when breeding and racing were cut back, his place in history might have been greater.
5. Affirmed. Unlike many champions, the most recent Triple Crown winner didn't relish blowing away his competition. He rarely won by more than he had to. Triumphing in a close fight was Affirmed's style, and he broke archrival Alydar's heart by a combined margin of less than two lengths in the 1978 classics, holding on by a head in the Belmont and a neck in the Preakness. His rider that magical spring, 18-year-old Steve Cauthen, praised him as a great athlete. In 1997, Cauthen told me that if Affirmed had been a human and played basketball, he would have been Michael Jordan.
6. Whirlaway. This spectacularly talented closer was a true nut case, and probably the only thoroughbred superstar called "The Half Wit" by his trainer. Whirlaway nearly drove Hall of Famer Ben Jones crazy by running so wide on the turns, when the colt's bushy tail presented numerous photo opportunities. "Mr. Long Tail" overcame his eccentricities to take the 1941 Triple Crown by a total of 16 lengths with no anxious moments.
7. War Admiral. The heavy in the movie "Seabiscuit" was beautifully bred and a magnificent physical specimen. He led at every call in the 1937 Triple Crown, though he took the Preakness by only a head. As a 3-year-old, he was 8-for-8. His misfortune was ending up as the villain the next year in the 1938 Pimlico Special match race with Seabiscuit. War Admiral, a son of Man o' War, was characterized as the aristocrat against the modestly bred people's horse during the Depression.
8. Gallant Fox. The only Triple Crown winner to sire one (Omaha in 1935), this colt provided a badly needed distraction for America during the first spring of the Great Depression. He went 9-for-10 as a 3-year-old and won each classic comfortably.
9. Sir Barton. Almost 20 years before the Derby, Preakness and Belmont would be characterized as the Triple Crown, Sir Barton won the first one. Too bad nobody knew about it. In the spring of 1919, only a few months after the end of the cataclysmic World War I, Sir Barton became the star 3-year-old after going 0-for-6 at 2.
10. Omaha. The son of 1930 Triple Crown champion Gallant Fox was a late bloomer, winning only 1 of 9 races as a 2-year-old before turning into the best 3-year-old of his generation.
11. Assault. Whenever history buffs are asked to name the Triple Crown winners, this 1946 winner almost always is the hardest to recall. Besides being the lowest-rated of the 11 on almost everybody's list, he's the only Texas-bred ever to pull off the sweep. Known as "The Club-Footed Comet" because of a foot problem, he was a dud at stud because he was sterile.