This year's Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in the end was not about two jockeys ganging up on Smarty Jones. It wasn't about the ride by Stewart Elliott. It was all about class, as was the entire Triple Crown.
There was the class of Smarty Jones and trainer John Servis throughout the entire Triple Crown, and the class of Birdstone in the Belmont. That's it. That's all you have to know. No more talk of the ethereal; that was fun while it lasted. And no more talk of what might have been.
Yes, it's still difficult in a way to accept the fact that Smarty Jones did not become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner. You have to ask yourself, if not Smarty, then who? This was the one where everything was falling perfectly into place. How can so many people invest that much emotion in a racehorse, then have it all come crumbling down...again?
Those are questions with no answers, and we shouldn't burden ourselves with trying to come up with any. Did Smarty have a "bulls eye" on his back, as Servis hinted before the race? Sure he did. How many overwhelming odds-on favorites don't have a bulls eye on their back? The only difference is that the others were not beloved by millions of people, as Smarty Jones was.
Maybe I'm being naive, and if I am it wouldn't be the first time, but I refuse to believe that Jerry Bailey and Alex Solis were out to get Smarty at the expense of their own horse. Why would they? Jealousy? Vindictiveness? At the cost of $160,000 to the owner (for second place), and $20,000 each to the jockey and trainer? If they were, that's quite a sad statement on the human athletes who participate in Thoroughbred racing. Would Bailey and Solis conspire to plot the downfall of a horse on whom rode the hopes of so many people, including schoolchildren, handicapped kids, horse lovers of all ages, not to mention all the bettors who poured so many millions of dollars on Smarty? Would they, as horsemen and lovers of the sport, cause so much disappointment because of simple spite? I just don't see it.
Looking at the race, yes, Solis did come out into Smarty going into the first turn, floating him wide. That certainly isn't the first time that's happened to a big favorite. Yes, Bailey did push Eddington and go after Smarty on the backstretch. And, yes, Solis did challenge him from the inside, forcing him to run suicidal middle fractions. But didn't we expect all this? Wasn't the strategy put on the table for all to see? We were all well aware that the three horses to beat -- Rock Hard Ten, Purge, and Eddington -- all stood a better chance of winning (or Smarty losing) if they put pressure on Smarty and tested his stamina. At least that's what we were told by all the connections.
Several days before the race, exercise rider Simon Harris, who was on Sarava when he worked in company with Rock Hard Ten, discussed how to beat Smarty with The Rock's exercise rider John Byrne. "What you gotta do is make it a test of stamina," he told Byrne. "You gotta take them gears away from him. You hope to outstay him, that's all. Make him play to your tune. I don't know of any horse who can beat this horse on Saturday, but that's the only way to do it. You have to push him along and take it to him."
That certainly seemed like sound strategy at the time, and that's pretty much what happened, except for one thing: the pace after the first half-mile was backbreaking, and none of the riders seemed to be aware of it. The only problem for Smarty is that he had three jockeys on three good horses all thinking the same way. If one of them had let the other two do the dirty work, that rider may have had a decent shot to be right there at the finish. But they didn't. If anything, you can criticize them for poor decisions. Edgar Prado, on Birdstone, was basically riding for second and wound up winning the whole thing because of their tactics. How do you think Bailey feels, seeing Birdstone, a horse he discarded, win the race? But that happens.
As for Elliott, he took some hard knocks in print over his ride, but I don't know that there was much he could have done about it. It looked like he was merely trying to get out of the heat and find a nice cool spot and relax. And that looked to be on the lead, being Smarty wasn't about to start taking back at that point. The only question I have about Elliott is why he didn't line up a mount before the Belmont (he did get named late on a Wayne Lukas horse), yet lined up a mount the race after
the Belmont. Wasn't he planning on being a tad busy after the Belmont? Can't understand that one. But as for the ride, he wasn't on the same relaxed colt he was on in the first two legs, when there was no pressure on him at all down the backstretch. If 170-pound Pete Van Trump can barely hold Smarty in a gallop, how is Elliott going to in a mile and a half race if the colt gets himself all fired up?
The bottom line is that Smarty Jones ran his heart out and gave every ounce of himself in all three races. And he did it on sloppy/sealed, dead, and lightning-fast tracks. He had only one flaw, and while it didn't affect him in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I), it was exposed in the Belmont. It's almost impossible for a horse, no matter how talented, to win the Belmont, especially running testing fractions, if they're headstrong and can't adapt to aggressive tactics.
Seattle Slew was never tested in his Belmont. Secretariat and Affirmed had only one horse to beat, and were able to turn their respective Belmonts into virtual match races. Smarty Jones couldn't get either of those scenarios, and it eventually caught up with him in the stretch.
Turning to the human side of this year's Triple Crown, it's almost impossible for anyone to show more class than Servis did throughout a pressure-packed five weeks unlike anything seen before. With all the press conferences, he never avoided a question, and always gave the right answer. He projected a refreshing honesty that made you believe every word out of his mouth. He didn't sugar-coat anything, and he looked you directly in the eye when he spoke to you. He was the kind of guy you wish you had as a neighbor. And behind him all the while was his wife, Sherry, who let her husband be the engineer, steering the Smarty Jones Express, while she poured the coal in the fire, making sure everything ran smoothly. They were quite a team.
In 1997, racing fans, who had forgotten what it felt like having a horse trying for the Triple Crown, fell head over heels for the gutsy, tenacious gray, Silver Charm, and his personable and quick-witted trainer, Bob Baffert. They were the ones who planted the seed that has blossomed into Smarty Mania. Baffert became a national celebrity, and racing was once again alive in mainstream America. But even back then, with all the frenzy over The Charm and his white-haired trainer, there still was room in people's hearts for Touch Gold, just as there should be room now for Birdstone.
And if Smarty Jones was to be upset, who more appropriate a conqueror than New York's own Nick Zito, perhaps the only trainer who would never be booed in The Big Apple? After five seconds in the Belmont, the popular Zito finally was rewarded.
But before we start looking ahead to a rematch between Smarty Jones and Birdstone, wherever that might be, let's first take a quick look back at one of the most unforgettable Triple Crowns in history. You had a major city, Philadelphia, turned upside down. You had a backdrop of murder, assault, and skull fractures. You had a biblical-like deluge; a three-state police escort; almost 10,000 people showing up at Philadelphia Park early in the morning just to watch a horse gallop; two horses from the same barn losing three shoes in the same race; a maligned, pint-sized horse getting his due in the Belmont; a 21-year-old female trainer whose father calls her "half horse;" a record-shattering Belmont crowd; record TV ratings and news coverage; a horse whose (hat) slogan read, "Size does matter;" a horse who was blind in one eye; the Derby and Preakness winner's owner having to be on oxygen; and people all over America in tears over the colt's defeat.
No, it was not your typical Triple Crown. In the end, it made a national hero out of a small-time Pennsylvania homebred, who became a household name and brought a new wave of interest in Thoroughbred racing. Smarty Jones lost the Belmont, but gained so much more.
The late racing writer David Alexander once wrote of Dr. Fager, "I shall remember the brilliant Dr. Fager like a sudden shaft of sunlight on a darkening day."
I can't help but think of those words when I look back at Smarty Jones slicing through the murk at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, his sky blue silks brightening the gloom of that late afternoon. I can't help but think of them as I rerun his awe-inspiring stretch run at Pimlico in my mind. And I will also think of them whenever I recall that moment turning for home at Belmont when immortality beckoned, and people from one end of the grandstand to the other jumped to their feet, convinced they were a mere 25 seconds from being a part of history.
These visions are everlasting. And when you think of it, isn't that what immortality is all about?