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 from an adoring public who opened their hearts to this dynamo of a horse.
Smarty Jones has now passed through that all too-familiar portal of time that has disrupted the racing universe for decades. He was the ruler of all turfdom, a national hero to children and adults of all ages. He turned common folks 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, 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 an eight-race winning streak that rose to a glorious crescendo in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). 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 trainer John 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 never fully blossomed.
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 saying 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. STEVE HASKIN is senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse