No rival for Smarty Jones?
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
Lion Heart and Imperialism gave up and went home to California. The Cliff's Edge got hurt and Tapit got sick. Not that it will make much of a difference, because none of them, or any of the other also-rans at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, made Smarty Jones sweat.
Jerry Bailey rode Eddington in the Preakness, where he finished third, 13½ lengths behind. Bailey isn't sure if he'd recognize Smarty, because they still haven't been properly introduced.
"I just want to get a look at Smarty Jones' face," Bailey said recently, "because all I've seen is his backside. He looked like a tiny dot in the Preakness. He's like a machine. You put him in the race, turn him off and turn him on again when you need him."
Smarty Jones' speed, willingness to rate and explosive acceleration have transformed him into an international celebrity and an overwhelming favorite to sweep the Triple Crown Saturday in the Belmont Stakes. His popularity is overwhelming, and few think he can lose.
Some have wondered if the absence of a talented archrival has diminished Smarty's accomplishments. In 1977 and 1978, Affirmed had Alydar, who defeated the last Triple Crown champion in three of their nine meetings, including their first one in July 1977. Throughout 1989, Sunday Silence had Easy Goer, who prevented a sweep in the Belmont. To a lesser extent, in 1987 and 1988, Alysheba had Bet Twice, who also denied the crown in the finale.
Great rivalries are rare, and they are recalled so vividly because they are exceptions to the rule. Secretariat beat up on Sham throughout the unforgettable spring of 1973, but Sham was more of a fall guy than a serious threat. Seattle Slew had no one to worry about four years later. Few even remember who ran second to Slew. But even people who never made a bet know how Alydar pushed Affirmed the next year.
Patrice Wolfson owned Affirmed with her husband, the late Louis Wolfson. Last week she reminisced about their horse's battles with the unfortunate Alydar.
"When Alydar won the Blue Grass, we were frightened to death of him, and we knew he was an unbelievable horse," Wolfson said. "Without Affirmed, Alydar would have won [the Triple Crown] by who knows how far. And without Alydar, Affirmed would have been undefeated going into the Belmont."
Steve Cauthen rode Affirmed in the classics, where his margins over runner-up Alydar were a length and a half in the Derby, a neck in the Preakness and a head in the Belmont.
Cauthen was asked if he thought Smarty would end the 26-year Triple Crown drought.
"From what I've seen, Smarty Jones should be more than good enough," Cauthen said. "When he made his move on the inside in the Preakness, he reminded me very much of Affirmed pricking his ears all the way down the stretch.
"The only difference was that when Affirmed was doing it, Alydar was breathing down his neck."
It would be more dramatic if Smarty Jones had a rival that looked like a true threat to knock him off at Belmont. Though some professional wise guys are trying their best, there is no logical case to be made for any other horse in the race. There are no Empire Makers in this bunch. One of them could win, but only if Smarty Jones is coming down with an illness, gets hurt or refuses to relax and burns himself out.
Anything can happen in a race, especially a 1½-mile marathon, but even if Smarty Jones regresses off his brilliant Preakness, he still should win. As Lion Heart's jockey, Mike Smith, said after the Preakness, "Smarty Jones is an amazing horse. All of the other 3-year-olds were just born in the wrong year."
That's not Smarty's fault. Instead of regretting that the Smarty Jones saga lacks a serious rivalry, just enjoy what's happening. That's the mindset of Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat. She'll be at Belmont rooting for Smarty to join her immortal horse in the thoroughbred pantheon.
"It's a time when we want to feel good about something, and we can't feel good about what's going on in our country and with our foreign policy now," Chenery said. "Smarty Jones is very appealing and easy to love, and so are his connections."
While we now have the Iraq war and the scandal over the torture of prisoners, in 1973 there was Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon the next year.
"I do think the time when this is occurring makes him even more attractive," Chenery said. "I felt that way about Secretariat as well, that the country needed him. Also, I had a red horse in blue and white colors and the Chapmans have a red horse in blue and white colors. I think there's something to it."
It's a riveting tale, even if Smarty doesn't have an Alydar to take him to the limit.