The last time Salty Punch saw Smarty Jones it was a very brief visit, about as long as it took for Smarty to blow by him shortly after the start of the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes last November. Five defeats later, Salty finally has found the winner's circle again, winning the six-furlong Danzig Stakes at Penn National.
On the night of May 14, a galaxy away from Pimlico and the Preakness (gr. I), which was being run the next day, Salty Punch felt what it was like to march triumphantly into the winner's circle and have his picture taken. He had rattled off fractions of :21 3/5 and :44 3/5 on his way to a 1 3/4-length victory. Of course, there weren't quite as many cameras at Penn National as there would be outside the winner's circle at Pimlico the following day. But to Salty, his brief encounter with America's new wonder horse was long forgotten. All he knew was that he was a winner.
What will not be long forgotten is the little part of history the son of Salt Lake
will carry around with him. And he can show it off for all it's worth and shout it as loud as he can. After all, he finished second to Smarty Jones! He knew the king back when they both were young, innocent Pennsylvania-breds trying to make a name for themselves at Philadelphia Park. Now he stands where other top-class horses, such as Rock Hard Ten, Lion Heart, Borrego, and Purge stand. They are all part of the rapidly growing fraternity of runners-up to the Philly phenom.
"If Smarty Jones can win the Belmont, his whole career will be part of history, and my little horse is gonna be right in there," said Salty Punch's trainer John Zimmerman.
"I finally got this horse around his own type in the Danzig and he really showed up. He cracked up some pretty good fractions. That was the race I was looking for for a while. He's matured a whole lot since that race with Smarty Jones, but he was up against some pretty tough horses at Gulfstream this winter."
Zimmerman had high aspirations for Salty Punch after he picked him out of the Ocala 2-year-old last year for $50,000. "When I bought him I liked him so much, I said, 'Man, I'm gonna win the Pennsylvania Nursery with this horse.' And I wind up running into a horse like Smarty Jones. That was a pretty tough deal."
Salty Punch had broken his maiden for a $35,000 claiming tag at Delaware Park last October when Zimmerman put blinkers on him and told Madrigal to just send him. The gelding blazed his opening quarter in :21 4/5 before drawing off to win by 13 1/4 lengths. Then came his proverbial date with destiny against Smarty Jones at Philly Park.
"When we ran against him we knew he was something really special," Zimmerman said. "We knew our horse had a lot of speed, but Smarty Jones got left terrible that day. And I mean he went by us before a quarter of a mile like we were sittin' still. Our horse can go :21 and change for the first quarter, and when Smarty Jones went by us, his jock had his feet in the dashboard and he still just whizzed by us. And then he goes and runs three-quarters in 1:08 and change after getting left like that. So how fast did he really run the three-quarters? Rod Madrigal, our rider, rode a smart race. He knew when Smarty Jones went by him he wasn't gonna beat him, so he didn't abuse the horse trying to run with him, and was able to get us second."
And what a second it was. While Zimmerman acknowledges that finding a horse like Smarty Jones is every trainer's dream, there is a harsh reality that comes with it.
"We're all looking for that kind of horse, every last one of us," he said. "But most of us would a have lot of trouble trying to keep horses like that. I have a half-brother to Peace Rules, by Kipper Kelly, who has been working really well and is about four to six weeks from a race. I know if I can pop off a maiden special weight win with him in New York or any big track, there are gonna be offers for him. When those offers come, guys like us can't afford to turn them down."
One footnote to Salty Punch's Danzig victory: finishing last in the field of five, 24 lengths behind Salty Punch, was a horse named Flintville...trained by John Servis.