Smarty is good, but is he great?
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
It's almost a foregone conclusion that Smarty Jones will win the Belmont Stakes and join racing's most illustrious club, that elite group that has won the Triple Crown. This is a horse with no apparent flaws, who seems to be coming into the race perfectly and will face what looks like a small and very weak lineup of competitors. Literally, he may have to fall down to lose.
He's going to be a Triple Crown winner. He is a special horse. But is he a great horse?
That's a word that is thrown around all too easily in this game. With Smarty Jones, that question can't be answered until after the Belmont when he faces older horses and jumps up to a level of competition that will be considerably tougher than the fields he has been facing this year.
The only possible knock on Smarty Jones is that he might just be a standout among what is a very weak group of 3 year olds. He beat Lion Heart in the Kentucky Derby and Lion Heart, who is winless this year, might be nothing more than a good miler. In the Preakness, he beat Rock Hard Ten, a horse who had had just three lifetime starts. Other than Smarty Jones, the 3-year-old crop looks to be a jumbled mess of mediocrity.
It will only get worse in the Belmont, a race that, again, says something about the level of competition he has been facing. Has a potential Triple Crown winner ever faced this weak group of competitors in the Belmont? Probably not. Secretariat had Sham. Affirmed had Alydar. Even Run Dusty Run, the runner-up behind Seattle Slew in the Belmont, was better than anything Smarty will face Saturday.
Following the Belmont, it's likely that Smarty Jones' next start will be in the Pennsylvania Derby on Labor Day at Philly Park. It's the right place to run, a way to reward the local track and local fans who have been so good to Smarty. But that figures to be another cakewalk against overmatched opponents.
Then it will get interesting. Certainly, the Smarty team will take a serious look at the Breeders' Cup Classic. Imagine Smarty Jones taking on what is a strong contingent of older horses. He might have to face Pleasantly Perfect, Medaglia D'oro, Southern Image and a couple of others who have a ton of ability. What happens then? Should he make that race, it will be stiffest test of his career and a truest benchmark yet of his greatness. Can he beat those horses? Maybe. Maybe not.
Fortunately, the plans are for Smarty to run as a 4-year-old. The Chapmans deserve credit for being good sports and not rushing him right off to the breeding shed where he's worth many millions. That's good for racing and, potentially, good for Smarty Jones. In his 4-year-old season, he can duplicate the feats of Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid, when they left no doubt they were horses worthy of the greatness moniker.
At 4, Seattle Slew had a sensational year, beating Affirmed in the Marlboro Cup, the only meeting ever between Triple Crown winners. Affirmed started off slowly as a 4-year-old, losing his first two races, but he came back to win his final seven starts, including a win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup over Spectacular Bid. Spectacular Bid was 9-for-9 during his 4-year-old campaign, winning five Grade I races. Secretariat didn't run as a 4-year-old, but beat stablemate, older horse and Kentucky Derby winner Riva Ridge in the Marlboro Cup. He ended his career with successive victories over older horses on the grass.
When their careers had ended, their post-Triple Crown accomplishments put the period on the end of the sentence. There was no doubt: each one was an immortal.
There's no reason Smarty Jones won't be every bit as successful when the next chapter of his career begins after the Triple Crown. But it remains to been seen what he will do and there's some reason to believe he won't roll over what will be much tougher competition.
Great horse? I'll reserve judgment, thank you.
Editor's Note: For a counterpoint to Bill's article, see what ESPN.com's Jeremy Plonk had to say.