In discussions of the Horse of the Year merits of Smarty Jones and Ghostzapper, it has been stated that Smarty Jones defeated an inferior group of 3-year-olds. But when you look at all the facts, there really is no basis for this.
Some believe, based on Beyer Speed Figures, that this is a weak crop. Yet other speed figure gurus, such as Thoro-Graph's Jerry Brown, state that some of Smarty Jones' numbers are among the fastest ever recorded by a 3-year-old, including one race that was the fastest
With that said, one cannot get a true line on the quality of this year's 3-year-olds as a whole, mainly because the Triple Crown trail claimed a good deal of them. Of the horses Smarty Jones demolished in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I), six of them, all major stakes winners, have not run since. They are Read the Footnotes, Friends Lake, Castledale, Action This Day, Little Matth Man, and Minister Eric. From that group alone we have the champion 2-year-old colt and winner of the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), as well as the winners of the Florida Derby (gr. I), Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), and Lane's End Stakes (gr. II). That's quite a nucleus to lose so early in the year.
Also, Wood Memorial (gr. I) winner Tapit raced only once more before being retired with various ailments. Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III) winner Limehouse raced only once more before being sidelined with an injury. Solid stakes-placed colts Pro Prado and Song of the Sword also raced only one more time. And then there are Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Wimbledon, Santa Catalina (gr. II) winner St. Averil, Florida Derby runner-up Value Plus, and last year's Lane's End Futurity (gr. II) winner Eurosilver (second in the grade II Swale Stakes) who never even made it to the Derby.
Of the horses Smarty Jones soundly defeated in the Derby, Preakness, and Arkansas Derby (gr. II) who did survive the Triple Crown ordeal, Birdstone, The Cliff's Edge, and Eddington finished 1-2-3 in the $1-million Travers Stakes (gr. I); Lion Heart captured the $1-million Haskell Invitational (gr. I); Rock Hard Ten easily won the Swaps Stakes (gr. II) before getting hurt in the Haskell; Purge scored brilliant victories in the grade II Peter Pan and Jim Dandy Stakes; Sir Shackleton and Pollard's Vision finished 1-2 in the $600,000 West Virginia Derby (gr. III), with the latter winning the recent Lone Star Derby (gr. III); and Borrego finished a close second in the $500,000 Super Derby (gr. II). That alone is a sensational record in any year.
And don't forget that The Cliff's Edge finished third, beaten only 1 3/4 lengths by Funny Cide, in the $1-million Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), despite running the final quarter mile on a broken leg. One clearly could see the colt duck in uncharacteristically shortly after turning for home, and that in all probability is when the injury occurred.
All this should boost Smarty Jones' reputation, not diminish it, especially considering how dominant he was over these horses in the three aforementioned races. Even in his defeat in the Belmont, in which he turned in what likely was the fastest third quarter (:22 4/5) in the history of the race, he managed to finish eight lengths ahead of the third-place finisher after running a mile and a quarter in a brutal 2:00 2/5.
Getting back to this year's 3-year-olds, the three most accomplished horses other than Smarty Jones -- Birdstone, The Cliff's Edge, and Lion Heart -- all have been retired with one type of fracture or another.
So, this may be an ill-fated crop of 3-year-olds, but hardly inferior. Regardless of whether one believes Ghostzapper or Smarty Jones should be Horse of the Year, the quality of competition is not a factor. For sure, Ghostzapper defeated a top-class field in the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I). But Smarty Jones also defeated top-class horses at the time. The fact that so many of them went down to injury should not be held against him any more than Pleasantly Perfect and Birdstone coming out of the Classic with career-ending injuries should be held against Ghostzapper.