Philly Faithful: 'Smarty' Remains Champion in Defeat

They cheered and cheered and cheered some more. And then silence.

Philadelphia sports fans have waited a long time for a championship in a major league sport. But even though Smarty Jones just failed to win the Visa Triple Crown Challenge June 5 at Belmont Park, the Philly faithful were down, but not out. In fact, many of them said the colt based at Philly Park remains a champion even in defeat.

"No doubt about it," said Zeke Jobes, a Burlington, N.J., resident who watched the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in the Ultimate Sportsview Bar on the second level of Philadelphia Park. "This is the only race he ever lost. Even Secretariat lost."

"He came in second, but I'm still proud of him," said Donna Dale of Southampton, Pa. "He's a young horse, and he'll make his mark. It's unfortunate, but he'll come back."

Only a few hours before the Belmont, the news broke that former President Reagan had died. The war in Iraq continues. A gallon of gas costs more than a $2 wager. The feeling was it would have been a perfect day for Smarty Jones to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

"There has been so much tragedy in the world," said Dee Smith, who visited Philly Park to watch the Belmont, "and then this horse comes along. He was a shining star for a moment and pushed our troubles aside. You really don't get horses like him in the Northeast, where we have a lot of hard-working, blue-collar people.

"I can't explain the feeling inside, but I can tell you he's still a winner. He didn't lose. I'm sure he'll get a great welcome when he comes home."

Others agreed, but they noted the town just can't shake the almost-but-not-quite stigma.

"It's like watching any other event in Philly," said Lisa Feenstra, who also lives near Philly Park. "Your heart pumps and pumps, and then it drops to the ground. I'd like to see it just once."

"We got desperate," Dale said of the thirst for a champion in Philadelphia. "We went from human beings to animals. We're desperate fans."

The crowd gathered at Philly Park let out cheers whenever Smarty Jones appeared on the NBC Sports feed. Just after the post parade, Philly Park broadcast a short video along with the theme from the movie "Rocky." When it ended, the crowd was psyched. More cheers followed.

A few diehard racing fans offered various views on the running of the race. One man said the pace killed Smarty Jones, who ran hard throughout the 11ò2-mile race. "You can't go two minutes (on the lead) in a mile-and-a-quarter race," he said.

Others just filed out after the race had ended. Many stayed in the plant, particularly the packed sports bar, to finish their drinks and commiserate.

Patrons began lining up at the entrance to the Philly Park picnic grove at 5:30 a.m. EDT. The weather -- it rained all morning and again picked up in the late afternoon hours -- failed to dampen spirits, as all the tables in the picnic area remained occupied even after the last live race just before 5:30 p.m.

Philly Park offers free parking and admission. Track chief executive officer Hal Handel said he had no guess at attendance, because people generally came and went throughout the day. Some came to the track to purchase Smarty Jones merchandise and programs, and then returned home to watch the Belmont on television and use their PhoneBet accounts.

It appeared, given the cars in the parking lot, at least 10,000 patrons were on hand at any given time. Other unofficial estimates were higher, some as much as 15,000 to 20,000. The six Turf Clubs in the Philly area were said to be packed.

A 13-foot-by-17-foot big screen television wheeled into the picnic grove gave patrons the opportunity to watch live racing and the Belmont without having to enter the grandstand. Handel said the screen was an experiment, and there could be several on the grounds should Smarty Jones compete in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) on Labor Day.

Before the Belmont, Philly Park officials said they planned to begin work on the third level of the facility June 7. It has been closed for years, but an anticipated throng for the Pennsylvania Derby has officials planning a quick renovation to accommodate about 4,000 people on the third floor if necessary.

Philly Park has hosted more than 20,000 patrons for the Derby on many occasions, but the attendance record and perhaps a few others would be obliterated should Smarty Jones -- even though he lost the Belmont -- compete in front of the home fans. A morning jog by Smarty Jones just after the May 15 Preakness Stakes (gr. I) lured 8,000 to 9,000 people, according to reports.