Analyzing the 3-Year-Old Scene in 2004
Photo: Skip Dickstein
Smarty Jones, one of the 3-year-old stars of 2004.
Editor's note: The following analysis of this year's 3-year-old racing season contains the observations of Steve Haskin, senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse.

Whether you felt this year's 3-year-old crop was a good one or bad one, it certainly inspired a good deal of passion and provided a number of memorable moments. The following is a look back at the tumultuous 3-year-old season and its most notable performers, broken down into categories.

BEST WINNING EFFORT – Hands down, Smarty Jones   in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). He absolutely destroyed his field, winning by a record 11 1/2 lengths, and doing it pretty much on his own. He also ran two-fifths of a second faster than Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner Southern Image did in the previous day's Pimlico Special (gr. I).

BEST LOSING EFFORT – Hands down, Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). He ran his three main opponents into the ground through brutal quarters of :22 4/5 and :23 4/5, getting the mile and a quarter in 2:00 2/5, which would have won every Kentucky Derby (gr. I) but four. It shouldn't be surprising he got tired in the final quarter. But he still hung tough and was beaten only a length by the grade I Champagne winner Birdstone, who would go on to win the grade I Travers. And he finished eight lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. I have never seen so many people weeping in sorrow after a race.

MOST HARD LUCK HORSE -- The Cliff's Edge   by a landslide. Considering his misfortunes all year, you had to admire his consistency and resiliency. He lost two shoes on a horrible track in the Kentucky Derby, including one just seconds after the break, and still finished a creditable fifth. To run that hard over such a bad track with only two shoes was an exceptional effort. He came out of the race with a foot bruise that kept him out of the Preakness. In the summer, he ran fast-closing seconds in the Dwyer (gr. II), Jim Dandy (gr. II), and Travers while suffering from a nasty skin rash. And finally, he ran his heart out to finish a close third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) despite sustaining a fracture at the top of the stretch. It sure looked from here as if he was going to win that race going away, but we'll never know. This was a very good horse who never got the chance to show what he was really capable of.

DEEPEST 3-YEAR-OLD STABLE – While on the subject of The Cliff's Edge, how about his trainer, Nick Zito, saddling six 3-year-old stakes winners – Birdstone, The Cliff's Edge, Sir Shackleton, Pies Prospect, Royal Assault, and Commentator -- who won a total of 10 stakes at nine different tracks. In all, Zito's 3-year-olds won or placed in 21 stakes at 12 different tracks, including seven grade I stakes.

BIGGEST SURPRISE – Still trying to figure out how Love of Money, having never run in a stakes and having never been two turns, managed to win the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) by eight lengths over a solid field, while racing greenly from the quarter pole to the wire.

BEST DISPLAY OF SPEED – Medallist exploding out of the gate in the 1 1/16-mile Dwyer, then cutting out fractions of :44 2/5 and 1:07 4/5 before going on to a 3 3/4-length victory in 1:40 flat.

WORST VICTIM OF A STEWARDS' RULING – Simply put, Rock Hard Ten's disqualification from second to third in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) was a terrible call, and wound up costing the colt a spot in the Kentucky Derby, although that did likely help him in the long run.

BIGGEST UPSET – Has to be a tie between Friends Lake and Castledale. When was the last time you had a 37-1 shot win the Florida Derby (gr. I) and a 30-1 shot win the Santa Anita Derby?

MOST MALIGNED HORSE – Birdstone   went from 3-5 in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II), and being the Derby favorite on many lists, to 21-1 in the Derby and 36-1 in the Belmont. After the Lane's End, no one wanted to ride the horse, who was considered too small and fragile by most jockeys and their agents. Fortunately for Edgar Prado and agent Bob Frieze, they had no other live Derby mount and took the call on Birdstone, then stuck with him in the Belmont. As a final indignity, after the Belmont, the colt was forced to return to the detention barn via the track instead of the paddock only to be locked out. After finally getting in when his assistant trainer cut the cords holding the lock, Birdstone was nearly struck by a limo that was leaving the track.

MOST INDELIBLE SIGHT – No, it wasn't Smarty Jones in any of his races; it was the crowd at Philadelphia Park lined up at the front gate starting from 5 a.m. just to watch him gallop, and, more importantly, to BE THERE. When the gates opened at 8 a.m., the sight of thousands of fans stampeding to the rail to get a choice spot was nothing short of surreal. And the children sitting atop their father's shoulders, donning Smarty Jones caps and shirts was a sight that should be preserved to show what racing's future "could" be like.

Potpourri

TRVIA QUESTION – What horse got the closest to Smarty Jones during his eight-race winning streak?...............................Answer: Two Down Automatic, beaten three-quarters of a length in the Southwest Stakes.

DERBY TRAIL WOES – The winners of the grade I Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Blue Grass, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, and grade II Fountain of Youth and Arkansas Derby, as well as the grade I Travers and Haskell Invitational, have all been retired. A sad epilogue for sure. And what ever happened to Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner Wimbledon and Florida Derby runner-up Value Plus?

ALL THE COMFORTS OF HOME – The Derby arrival of Wood Memorial winner Tapit   and trainer Michael Dickinson, who brought four large tubs filled with sections of home-grown grass, about six to seven inches in length, which formed a 20-foot smorgasbord outside the barn. Dickinson also brought with him Guinness beer and eggs, a daily staple for Tapit, and a humidifier and air purifier that he installed in the colt's stall.

IS NOTHING SACRED? – Imagine Bob Baffert and Nick Zito both getting fired by owners months apart. Baffert got canned by Jim MacIngvale, despite winning the Louisiana Derby with Wimbledon and the San Fernando (gr. II) with During, while Zito got the axe from Buckram Oak Farm, despite a win and second (beaten a head in the grade II Swale Stakes) with Eurosilver, winner of the previous year's Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) and Iroquois Stakes (gr. III).

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