This one was supposed to be different
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
This was not War Emblem, Real Quiet, Funny Cide, Charismatic or Silver Charm. They were vulnerable. Smarty Jones was as solid as steel. This was no fraud, this was a sensational horse who destroyed the competition three weeks earlier in the Preakness and seemed to have his eight opponents at his mercy.
But Smarty Jones didn't get the job done. He was simply the second best horse in the Belmont Stakes, beaten a length by a 36-1 shot named Birdstone who was supposed to be running for nothing better than second money. It was a wonderful afternoon at the track, that is until 12 jumps from the wire when Birdstone stuck his head in front and Belmont Park went dead quiet. For the tenth time in 26 years, a painful lesson was driven home. Winning the Triple Crown is just an extremely difficult thing to do. And that is why Smarty Jones lost.
That's 10 straight now, 10 horses who couldn't complete the Triple Crown sweep. The odds of all them losing are astronomical.
"The Triple Crown is obviously the hardest accomplishment in sports," said John Hendrickson, whose wife, Marylou Whitney, owns Birdstone.
He didn't need to tell that to Stewart Elliott, Smarty Jones' jockey.
"It's very hard to win this," he said. "You have to have a horse who can do just about anything."
In hindsight, Smarty Jones fell exactly one length short of being able to do just about anything. He failed because he's not perfect and it seems that it takes a perfect horse to do this. Smarty Jones, after all, had a few minor chinks in his armor. More than anything else, it appears he just couldn't handle the mile-and-a-half, that demanding, outdated distance that swallows up so many horses. For much of the race, everything looked fine. He spurted away from the field nearing the far turn and opened up by 3 ½ lengths at the top of the stretch.
But his tank was nearing empty. In a stretch run eerily reminiscent of the 1998 Belmont when Victory Gallop caught Real Quiet to deny him the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones started running on rubbery legs and couldn't hold off the on-rushing challenger. Make this race a-mile-and-half-minus-70 yards and we would have had a 12th Triple Crown winner.
"The mile and a half just got to him," Elliott said. "He never got a break the entire race. I still thought I had a good shot (at the top of the stretch). I looked over and I saw Birdstone running and I figured I might be in trouble. He was running pretty strong."
So maybe it was the mile and a half. Then again, maybe it was the three races in five weeks, plus three preps crammed together in Arkansas at Oaklawn Park beforehand that did Smarty in. The modern horse, those frail, brittle things that need a month or better in between races, just can't handle it. Trainer John Servis, who did such a superb job with Smarty Jones, had worried all along that the day would come the schedule finally overwhelmed his horse. That day was June 5.
"It's not just the three Triple Crown races," Servis said. "I've said it a thousand times before. It starts with the beginning of the year. What really makes it tough is that after you get the Kentucky Derby win you have to have your horse sharp for the Preakness and then have him the opposite for the Belmont. That's a tough task."
There have been a lot of horses who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness who didn't deserve to win the Triple Crown. They just weren't worthy, and the gods refused to shine down on them on the first Saturday in June. They protected the sanctity of the Triple Crown and the 11 immortals who have accomplished this extremely difficult task.
Smarty Jones won't go down in that category. He's not a Real Quiet, a Funny Cide, Forward Pass or Kauai King. He's an exceptional horse who was worthy but fell short.
"He's not done," Servis said. "You'll be seeing plenty of him. You'll see him next year. He'll go down as a great horse like Spectacular Bid who didn't win the Triple Crown."
This can't last forever. Some day one will come around. But it might be a long time, maybe years, maybe decades. On another deflating June afternoon at Belmont Smarty Jones fell short and the sport was reminded that winning the Triple Crown is just an extremely difficult thing to do.