Smarty's bid for coveted Triple Crown foiled
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
ELMONT, N.Y. -- Heading into the stretch of the 136th Belmont Stakes, Smarty Jones was in the clear and eternal glory was beckoning. Another 400 yards and he would join the thoroughbred pantheon. But longshot Birdstone was coming on steadily, and suddenly Smarty began to look weary. There would be no Triple Crown winner Saturday at Belmont Park.
Birdstone, ridden by Edgar Prado, had Smarty Jones in his sights, and 11 strides from the wire, trainer Nick Zito's colt went by the KentuckyDerby-Preakness winner en route to a length victory before a crowd of 120,139, the largest ever to see a sporting event in New York. For the first time in nine career starts, Smarty Jones didn't win, and for the 26th consecutive year, no 3-year-old swept the spring classics.
Even Zito, Prado and owner/breeder Marylou Whitney had mixed emotions after bringing down the colt who emerged from obscurity this spring to become Philadelphia's favorite son and an international celebrity.
As Birdstone and Smarty Jones galloped out, Prado leaned over and surprised Elliott, who undoubtedly was in an agitated state.
"He said he was sorry," Elliott said. "I said, 'What are you going to do? That's horse racing.' "
Zito was thrilled over finally beating his jinx race and completing his personal Triple Crown. Besides winning the 1991 Derby with Strike the Gold and the 1994 Derby with Go for Gin, he also took the 1996 Preakness with Louis Quatorze. After going 0-for-11 with five seconds in "The Test of the Champion," the emotional New York native not only won it but also finished third with another longshot, Royal Assault. Still, he felt for those who yearned for a Smarty sweep.
"What can I say?" Zito said. "I feel great, and it was an emotional thing. It's sad because Smarty is great for racing."
Whitney, Saratoga's leading socialite, was weepy and overjoyed. Her feelings were confusing. "This means so much to me," she said.
"This is a homebred. My husband [John Hendrickson] is the one who decided to breed Dear Birdie to Grindstone. But we do feel horrible. It's bittersweet. We were rooting for Smarty.
"We love Smarty. I think Smarty has done more for the racing community and people who love horses."
Love hurts, and Smarty went down because he got a badly judged ride by Elliott at the end of a glorious ride through spring. Elliott, the only jockey the colt has ever known, asked far too much of him in the most grueling race Smarty will ever run.
Smarty never got a breather in an exhausting lap of Belmont's 1 1/2 -mile oval. He was three-wide into the first turn and four-wide on the backstretch while always battling on the pace. Trainer John Servis was worried a long way out, and he looked more angry than disappointed seconds after Birdstone crossed the finish line.
"He just wasn't able to settle," Servis said minutes later. "You can't win a mile-and-a-half race and not settle. I knew when we turned onto the backside that we were in a little trouble. He just wasn't settling the way he did in the previous two races."
After taking constant pressure from Rock Hard Ten on his inside and Eddington from behind while chasing Purge, Smarty Jones took the lead by a half-length after a mile in a quick 1:35.44. Elliott kicked for home early – too early—and opened a 3 1/2 -length edge entering the stretch. Rock Hard Ten and Eddington were done, but Birdstone was coming.
Prado had let Birdstone move comfortably while Smarty took the heat down the backstretch, and although he was far back, he still hadn't used his horse.Birdstone moved four-wide on the far turn, and Smarty wasn't home free.
"At the top of the stretch, I still thought I had a good shot," Elliott said, "but then I looked over and saw Birdstone and thought we might be in trouble."
He was. Birdstone ground him down and took the lead in deep stretch, and Smarty had nothing left to throw at him. Birdstone gained 4 1/4 lengths in a sluggish final quarter of 26.98 seconds after Smarty Jones ran 1 1/2 miles in a blazing 2:00.52. Smarty ran the third quarter-mile of the race in 23.11 seconds, way too fast for a marathon.
Birdstone paid $74 after being timed in 2:27.50 in his fourth win in seven starts. He earned $600,000 and raised his career total to $975,600.
Failing to get the sweep at the Belmont has become old hat in recent years, with the last six winners of the Derby and Preakness coming up short. Unlike Smarty Jones, none of them was considered a great horse, and expectations were nothing compared to the buzz surrounding the Philly Flyer. In 1997, Silver Charm didn't see Touch Gold coming wide and was denied in the final 50 yards. The next year, Victory Gallop caught Real Quiet in the shadow of the wire and nosed him out. A year later, Charismatic suffered a broken leg in the stretch and staggered in third. After two years with no sweep on the line, War Emblem finished far back at Belmont after stumbling badly at the start.
Last year, Funny Cide attracted a huge bandwagon as the New York-bred gelding pulled an upset in the Derby before dominating a weak Preakness by 11 1/4 lengths. He never handled a wet track in the Belmont and was passed by Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted in the stretch. After standing in a chilly rain all day, thousands of bitterly disappointed Funny Cide fans booed Empire Maker, his jockey, Jerry Bailey, and his trainer, Bobby Frankel.
One man had wagered upon his published opinion that Empire Maker was superior to Funny Cide and would beat him. "After the race, I was in the stands feeling pretty good about being right and cashing a nice bet," he said. "Then I looked around and everybody looked as if their dog had just died."
That's what happened again this year. Millions of people were seriously bummed out Saturday night because Smarty got beat.
Jay Leno had called to ask if Smarty would come to California to appear on his show. President Bush issued an open invitation for the horse to visit the Rose Garden. One woman wrote to Servis and asked if she could have her photo taken on the colt. All were turned down.
"It's unbelievable how it's taken off," Servis said Friday. "It's just kind of snowballed. It seems like the story is flowing across the country and everyone has kind of adopted him as the feel-good story and their horse.
" . . . I think the timing has a lot to do with it. There are so many bad things going on in the world. Like Mr. [Charles] Cella [of Oaklawn Park] said when he came to Philadelphia Park, 'People get tired of looking at the bad things on the front page and they skip to the sports page. They get to read a feel-good story about a little red horse who's doing good.'
"That's been great for us, and hopefully it continues."
Unfortunately for Smarty and his connections, it didn't.
Servis tried to accentuate the positive while taking the pain with class and grace. While Zito was being interviewed after the race, Servis congratulated him.
"Well, it's tough," Servis said. "We had a shot to make big history here. We didn't do it. We've had a great year. I'm not going to put my head down. I'm proud of the whole team and everybody needs to be happy. They don't need to be sad"
Too bad it didn't feel that way Saturday night, and that wouldn't change Sunday morning.