The best news to come out of Smarty Land is an indication from his connections that the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner will race next year as a 4-year-old. Win or lose come Belmont Stakes (gr. I) day June 5, Smarty Jones is a racing star who has given the sport a refreshing jolt of mainstream popularity. But new fans or those who have simply rediscovered the sport will feel betrayed if the son of Elusive Quality is whisked off to the breeding shed prematurely, which happens all too frequently when tens of millions of dollars are in play for stallion syndication or acquisition. Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought in 1973 and retired to stud at Kentucky's Claiborne Farm for the 1974 breeding season. Some observers had nagging doubts about the true merits of Secretariat because he had limited racing experience against older horses and didn't carry the weight that some of the great champions of the past shouldered in major handicap events. All because he didn't race at four. It doesn't have to happen that way. Back-to-back Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed both raced at four, enhancing their reputations as racehorses and sire prospects. The 1978 Marlboro Cup Handicap (gr. I) was a dream matchup of the two Triple Crown winners, with the 4-year-old Seattle Slew beating the year-younger Affirmed. But it was another match of the Triple Crown winners that really had the racing world buzzing. In that race, the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), then run at 1 1/2 miles, Seattle Slew was the 3-5 favorite with Affirmed and Harbor View Farm stablemate Life's Hope second choice in the wagering at 2-1. Life's Hope was entered by trainer Laz Barrera to pressure Seattle Slew on the front end, something that didn't happen when Slew coasted in the Marlboro Cup. Seattle Slew broke through the gate before the start, then rushed off to an early lead once reloaded. Surprisingly, both Affirmed and Life's Hope went after him. It turns out the saddle had slipped on Affirmed, and jockey Steve Cauthen was unable to harness his speed. Affirmed was running virtually out of control. The fractional times were more fitting for a sprint or mile race -- :22 3/5 for the opening quarter-mile, :45 1/5 for the half, and 1:09 2/5 for six furlongs. Approaching the far turn, long after Life's Hope faded, Affirmed had had enough, but Seattle Slew kept going. When the proven stayer Exceller came to him, ordinary Thoroughbreds would have folded, but Angel Cordero Jr. was riding a horse that was far from ordinary. Slew fought back in an unforgettable stretch duel, giving Exceller a half-length advantage at the furlong marker, then fighting back to just miss by a nose. By so doing, Seattle Slew earned almost as much respect as in any of his victories. Though Affirmed was beaten twice by Seattle Slew, he got the nod as Horse of the Year in 1978. One year later, he demonstrated the advantage that 4-year-olds have over their younger rivals, stringing together victories in his final seven races and defeating that year's 3-year-old champion, Spectacular Bid, by three-quarters of a length, in a front-running triumph in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It was a racing year many fans have long remembered.
The following year, 1980, was almost as exciting. Spectacular Bid, whose Triple Crown bid failed, also came back as a 4-year-old. He swept all nine of his races, winning from coast-to-coast and ending his career with a rare walkover in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) when no one stepped forward to challenge him. For many racing fans, 1978, '79, and '80 was the golden era of racing. Wouldn't it be nice to see something like that again? E-mail Ray Paulick