Once again, the fans flocked to the glitter palace that for a brief moment in time was Philadelphia Park. They came to get one final glimpse of the equine king who ruled there for three glorious months, and who was now abdicating his throne at the height of his reign.
Despite the high energy that rippled through the track, Philly Park was no place for sunshine on Aug. 14. The drops of rain that began to fall just as Smarty Jones marched down the stretch for his farewell appearance were matched only by the tears shed by many of his loyal fans. They came to say goodbye, and watching Smarty prancing along on his toes as if longing for competition made his retirement all the more difficult to understand.
Cries of "Smarty! Smarty!" and "We love you, Smarty," poured out from the large crowd gathered along the rail from one end of the stretch to the other. It was one final burst of emotion, whether in the form of cheers or tears, from an adoring public who opened their hearts to this dynamo of a horse.
For Philadelphia Park, they had already spent around $125,000 to refurbish the vacant third floor for Smarty's expected appearance in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), decorating it with new carpeting and chandeliers and building mutual counters. Another $500,000 was to go toward the construction of temporary seating for 5,000 to 7,000 fans and an air-conditioned VIP tent that would hold about 700. Also in the works had been a proposed $10 million match race between Smarty and his Belmont conqueror, Birdstone, to be held in late September at a track to be announced. The match had already been approved by the connections of both horses, as well as the sponsors.
"It's going to be pretty teary out there," Philly Park CEO Hal Handel said earlier in the day. "There are a lot of kids and families here. This was our industry's one big chance to get these people involved. But, so be it. Such is life. It's just a shame it has to end this way."
Director of racing Sal Sinatra is still searching for a miracle. "Who knows, maybe in 60 or 90 days they'll change their mind," he said.
Not likely. The bottom line is, Smarty has already passed through that all too-familiar portal of time that has disrupted the racing universe for decades. On one side, he was the ruler of all turfdom, a national hero to children and adults of all ages. He turned common folks, like John Servis, Stewart Elliott, Bill Foster, Pete Van Trump, and Dr. Patricia Hogan into household names. He had the city of Philadelphia and the small suburb of Bensalem fighting over him like two jealous suitors. He turned cheese steaks and soft pretzels into soul food. He turned apathy into exultation with his victories and exultation into sorrow with his lone defeat. And finally, he turned sorrow into outrage with his departure. Whatever greatness he might have achieved will remain behind, like an unfinished manuscript filled with beautiful prose, never to be read.
Almost everything that needs to be said about Smarty Jones' retirement has been said, by the media and the fans. Most of it reflects the anger, frustration and disillusionment that comes with retiring a horse like this after promises that he would race again next year. The colt's retirement is not about Three Chimneys Farm. It's the breeder's job to breed and it's the owner's job to race. It was up to the Chapmans to say yes or no to retirement. They said yes.
So, although Smarty Jones leaves racing with a whimper instead of the expected bang, only time will tell how he'll be remembered and where he'll stand among the top 3-year-olds of his era. He leaves behind the memory of a nine-race winning streak that rose to a glorious crescendo in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). He even shined in defeat, running his three main Belmont (gr. I) threats into the ground on the backstretch with a pair of scorching quarters never before recorded in the mile and a half classic. While the others were left floundering up the track, Smarty battled on only to fall 50 yards short of immortality. And to further prove his potential greatness, he leaves behind a legacy of vanquished foes who have since basked in the spotlight he vacated, attaining riches and glory most felt were meant for him.
On Aug. 14, it was no longer about the Chapmans, who did not attend the ceremony, or Servis, or anyone other than Smarty Jones. The appreciative fans stripped away their disappointment and came out on a cloudy, humid afternoon to take one final whiff of the rose, knowing it would never fully blossom.
They came decked out in Smarty Jones hats and shirts. Young children held up signs, such as "Smarty you will always be the best in my heart...I will miss you" and "Goodbye Smarty...thanks for the ride!!!" Smarty's entrance had all the fanfare of a Roman legion returning from victory. Members of the large entourage surrounding the colt waved at the crowd as they made their way down stretch, recalling memories of "the walk" on the first Saturday in May. A loud cheer went up when Smarty's blanket was removed as he entered the paddock, revealing the colt in all his physical splendor. Then, following the winner's circle festivities, in which he was presented with a tub of carrots, the cheers started up again as Smarty departed. For the vast majority, it would be the last they would ever see of their hero. It was at this time that the tears began to fall.
There are some in the media who have already placed Smarty Jones in a category with horses like Funny Cide, War Emblem, and Charismatic. That is merely a knee-jerk reaction to the circumstances surrounding his retirement. Smarty Jones will never prove his greatness on paper, but make no mistake, he was great. In fact, there was nothing about him that wasn't great – from his fast times and consistency to his total dominance over horses who went on to achieve success in major stakes. But what separated Smarty Jones from other would-be superstars was the aura of greatness that emanated from him, whether on the racetrack or in his stall. And, yes, even walking from the paddock to the winner's circle to say goodbye. The term "look of eagles" is rarely used any longer, but Smarty had it. He burned it into our hearts, and it is that look that will be missed the most.
In the end, the final glimpse of Smarty Jones heading back to his barn for the last time brought with it feelings of deep gratitude and admiration, but also feelings of sadness and emptiness. After all, heroes are supposed to ride
off into the sunset, not walk.