Horse racing entails fierce competition, and there are 11 owners out there who will try to ruin the party for Thoroughbred fans and I'll Have Another when that colt runs for the Triple Crown at Belmont Park June 9. But they should be careful what they wish for, because being the spoiler carries with it more than just winning a horse race.
It was a surreal scene eight years ago when the winning owner of the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) felt the need to apologize for a momentous victory in her illustrious career.
"I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry that Smarty Jones couldn’t win today," said Marylou Whitney. "We would have been happy to run second."
But her Birdstone had other ideas, and when he passed Smarty Jones inside the last pole to deny "The People’s Horse" the Triple Crown, a record Belmont Stakes crowd of 120,139 went eerily silent. Tears flowed freely. It was the ultimate spoiler moment of the many that have taken place in New York since Affirmed last completed the Triple Crown test 34 years ago.
"It was awful," said Whitney’s husband, John Hendrickson. "We felt horrible. We apologized for probably two years. We reached out to Mrs. (Pat) Chapman the next day to apologize and she said, ‘Don’t be silly. Your horse kicked our horse’s (butt).’ "
Pat and Roy Chapman raced Smarty Jones in the name of their Someday Farm, as in "someday maybe we’ll have a good horse." Roy was chairbound and infirm during his horse’s magic run, adding to the sentiment that gripped racing fans and non-racing followers alike as the Pennsylvania-based Smarty Jones made his bid for immortality in the spring of 2004.
Roy Chapman referred to he and his wife as "ham-and-eggers," just ordinary folks to whom an extraordinary horse was given. And geographically, thousands of fans from Pennsylvania made the pilgrimmage to Belmont Park to see one of their own make history. The Belmont attendance record was busted by nearly 17,000 over the one that had been set two years earlier when War Emblem tried to complete the triple.
Of course, the Whitney clan had some history on its side as well. Harry Payne Whitney had won the Belmont 99 years before Marylou pulled off the feat. Her late husband, C.V. "Sonny" Whitney, had also taken New York’s most prestigious race. As Sonny Whitney reached the end of his days, he dispersed his Thoroughbred stock so as not to burden Marylou with having to run the operation.
"When he passed away he gave Marylou his entire fortune, and she spent half of it trying to get that stock back," said Hendrickson.
One of the mares she bought back was Dear Birdie, who would become the dam of the Belmont winner. Marylou Whitney’s passion and pride for her horses run deep. The Belmont victory left her conflicted.
"When Birdstone crossed the finish line of course we were happy," said Hendrickson. "But then we realized, ‘What have we done?’ It’s about the horse and not about us, so we were happy for the horse but sorry for the sport. As fans it was hard. We treasure the game more than we treasure our trophies, so we knew how important that moment in time was.
"We came to see a coronation and instead we got a sporting event. Sometimes that happens. I’ve never been in a crowd of 120,000 people where it went from roaring to dead silence."
Birdstone proved himself a top horse when he came back to win the Travers Stakes (gr. I) that summer. Whitney and Hendrickson will be at Belmont Park June 9 rooting for I’ll Have Another to win the Triple Crown. They have no horse in the race, so the spoiler, if he’s out there, will have to come from elsewhere.