Trophy awarded to winner of the Visa Triple Crown.

Trophy awarded to winner of the Visa Triple Crown.

Crying Wolf?

Originally published in the May 22, 2004 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine
When Smarty Jones enters the gate for the June 5 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park, more than a chance to win the elusive Visa Triple Crown will be on the line. If he wins, the son of Elusive Quality would become the biggest earner in North American racing history.

A Belmont victory would earn Smarty Jones' owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, a $5-million bonus from Visa, which has been sponsoring the series for nine years. In addition to the purses for winning the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I), he already received a $5-million bonus from Oaklawn Park for winning the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby (gr. II), and Kentucky Derby.

"We'll give the next $5 million to make Smarty Jones the most award-winning Thoroughbred in the history of the industry," said Carl Pascarella, president of Visa. "This is not just about Visa and the Visa Triple Crown. It's about Thoroughbred racing. I think it's about America. It's just such a great time to be part of this right now. I think this is the real deal. I think this is the time to really write the check. It's one payment Visa really, really wants to make."

If becoming the all-time leading money earner weren't enough pressure for Team Smarty, the Pennsylvania-bred would become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, and the first to complete the three-race series with an undefeated record since Seattle Slew in 1977.

Smarty Jones will be the 10th horse since 1979 to travel to Belmont Park with hopes of becoming the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner, and in many ways his story is the most captivating yet.

"There is so much momentum going into this race," said Bill Nader, executive vice president of the New York Racing Association. "The chance to become the all-time leading money earner and being undefeated, not to mention the terrific story of his connections. This year is better than the last and I say that every year, but this whole story this year is great."

Last year it was Funny Cide and his yellow school bus-riding crew of owners known as Sackatoga Stable. In 2002 it was trainer Bob Baffert bringing his third horse in six years to the Belmont with the Triple Crown on the line. In 1999 it was the former claimer turned classic winner Charismatic and trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Baffert's first attempt at the trifecta, with Silver Charm in 1997, piqued interest because it was the first Triple Crown attempt in eight years.

But this year, Smarty Fever has already stepped outside the traditional bounds of Thoroughbred racing interest, reaching a whole new audience.

Blue-and-white Smarty Jones caps and T-shirts were already highly visable at Pimlico for the Preakness.

Getting so close but yet so far to a Triple Crown winner for five out of the past seven years could almost make horse racing the sport that cried wolf, but instead the drought between Triple Crown winners is testament to the toughness of the series.

"Fans waiting and wanting to see a Triple Crown winner are a lot like the long suffering Red Sox or Cubs fans," Nader said. "Initially they are so disappointed, but just like any sports fans they recover and come back the next year. Winning the Triple Crown isn't supposed to be easy and when it happens, everyone wants to say they witnessed history."

With history on the line once again Nader said he expects to see all-time records for attendance and handle at Belmont. Last year's crowd that came out to the New York oval to root for Funny Cide was a record 101,864 despite a soaking rain throughout the day. The total handle on the race, more than $48 million, was the second highest in history.

"If the weather cooperates, there is no doubt that all-time New York attendance and handle records will be established," Nader said. "Right now we have in place a special train service with Amtrak that will transport fans from Philadelphia to New York. That should highly increase on-track attendance," he said. "In addition to on-track attendance, I would expect the NBC telecast to be the highest rated program for the second straight year. It's going to be a wild day for sports."