Yes, it is blasphemous to even think that Smarty Jones will be beaten in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). But it is still a horse race, and a mile and a half one to boot. And there will be some people who will try to win money and beat the favorite. Although I hate to even suggest that will happen, this column is for them. To all Smarty Jones fans who think this is a lock, read on at your own risk.
It is looking more and more as if Smarty is destined to win the Triple Crown. He simply has no flaws at this point, and rules don't seem to apply to him any longer. But many followers of the speed sheets (Ragozin and Thoro-Graph) feel all his incredibly fast numbers are finally ready to catch up to him. Are they right? Is this sudden and dramatic change in the weather forecast another good sign for Smarty, or is it a bad one? That we won't know until tomorrow evening.
But, let's assume, as unpopular as it may seem, that Smarty Jones in beatable. What credentials do the others have to be the one to pull off the upset?
Let's start first with Rock Hard Ten. From a physical aspect, this is the most likely culprit. The Rock's works and gallops have been nothing short of spectacular, and you couldn't ask a horse to work any better that he did on Monday when he dusted 2002 Belmont Stakes winner Sarava in a five-furlong work in :58 3/5. With the rider on Sarava scrubbing on him and smacking him with the whip to try to get him to keep up, John Byrne, on Rock Hard Ten, was doing everything possible to slow his horse down. Still Rock Hard Ten drew off with the utmost ease and was striding out magnificently as he cruised past the wire, galloping out the six furlongs in 1:11.
Rock Hard Ten's gallops also have been awesome, and when he galloped with Sarava on Friday, he dropped some 20 lengths behind him. Simon Harris, on Sarava, started to ease his colt, but Rock Hard Ten still looked super as made up those 20 lengths, and was 10 in front turning into the backstretch.
He has been a bit hesitant at times schooling at the gate, but starter Bobby Duncan and assistant starter Hector Soler have done a great job with him, and for the most part he's been fine loading and backing out. But you do have to watch him in front of that big, boisterous crowd, especially when track announcer, Tom Durkin, bellows "It is now post time!" and the usual deafening cheer goes up.
You have to remember, Rock Hard Ten, although beaten 11 1ò2 lengths by Smarty Jones in the Preakness, went into that race with only three career starts, and hadn't run in six weeks. He did make a strong move on the turn after racing five to six wide the whole way over a track that can be deadly to horses losing ground, especially on the first turn.
So, has Rock Hard Ten made sufficient strides to actually turn the tables on Smarty Jones? Maybe not, but if you are looking to make money instead of witnessing history, you should have a legitimate shot with this big bruiser.
That brings us to Purge. This is one horse that even on paper has a right to be competitive with Smarty Jones. Prior to the Preakness, the consensus was that the Rebel Stakes was Smarty's best race, in which he received the best number ever given to a 3-year-old on Thoro-Graph. Well, Purge was second in that race, beaten 3 1ò2 lengths, despite making only the second start of his career, second start this year, and first start around two turns, having never been farther than six furlongs.
A sloppy track may have compromised his chances in the Arkansas Derby, when he was tracked by Smarty the whole way. And remember, he shipped into Oaklawn Park twice to run over a track Smarty had been training and racing over all winter. He came to Belmont and looked super winning the Peter Pan Stakes (gr. II) in a romp. Now, he meets Smarty on his
home track, and obviously is a better horse now than he was back at Oaklawn. He's no guarantee to stay the mile and a half, but not many horses are these days.
The bottom line is that this is a very talented colt, who in my opinion, scored the most impressive maiden victory last year when he squeezed through a narrow opening on the rail like an old pro and drew off to an impressive win in fast time. You very rarely see a horse making his career debut show that kind of brilliance, courage and professionalism.
The last horse of big three potential upsetters is the enigmatic Eddington. It's true this big, grand-looking chestnut has been an underachiever, and still does not have his head on straight. But anyone who saw his first two victories at Gulfstream this winter has to be convinced there is an enormously talented colt hidden in that big chestnut body. When that colt emerges is the big question.
In his last two races, he has lost focus at some point in the race and basically took himself right out contention. But there have been signs the complete package is coming. The first was way he battled back in the closing yards of the Wood Memorial (gr. I) and just fell a nose shot of getting second over Master David. The second is finding another gear in the stretch to snatch third in the Preakness after he pretty much stopped running on the far turn. Returning to Belmont, where he his much more at home, he turned in two incredibly quick works, especially for him, which may be an indicator that the proverbial light bulb could be close to coming on. Jerry Bailey returns, the pedigree is there, he apparently loves Belmont, and now it's just a question whether he can finally put it all together for an entire race.
The remainder of the field would be monumental longshots, with the exception of Master David, who is a good horse with a top pedigree, and trained by last year's Belmont winner Bobby Frankel. He's a small, shifty colt, but the big question with him, as Frankel says, is whether he's fast enough to beat these kinds of horses.
As for Nick Zito's pair, Birdstone is the only grade I winner in the field other than Smarty Jones, and that came at Belmont. He has the pedigree, and if he can ever grow up and mature physically, there is no reason why he can't eventually return to the form that won him the Champagne Stakes (gr. I). Royal Assault has always been Zito's Belmont horse, and he is coming into the race in very similar fashion as Sarava. But he still will have improve in leaps and bounds to catch up to the Smarty and the others.
But, all in all, the big three to fear are Rock Hard Ten, Purge, and Eddington, and if Smarty doesn't run his race, any one of the three can jump up and win. If Smarty runs anywhere near his race in the Preakness, we'll be crowning the 12th Triple Crown winner.
If I was looking to beat him, I'd bet on all three horses to win, and on top of Smarty in the exactas. Personally, although Rock Hard Ten has looked awesome, I have been following Purge and Eddington very closely for a very long time, especially Purge. I, like most everyone else, would love to see Smarty do it, and am in awe of his accomplishments, but if he is going to be upset, I still do have a soft spot for Eddington and Purge.