Seven things that could go wrong
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
I am among the millions who believe that Smarty Jones will win the Belmont Stakes Saturday and join the 11 other immortals who swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. In fact, I think it will be a blowout–he will win by at least 10 lengths, maybe a lot more.
At odds expected to go as low as 1-5, Smarty Jones will be the strongest favorite in the Belmont since the Bid himself. But even odds of 1-5 reflect the fact that there is no lead pipe certainty that he will win. The odds 1-5 correspond to an 83.33 percent chance of winning, at least in the view of the betting public.
Here are seven things that could go wrong to detour Smarty Jones' trip to the history books.
1. He Might Bounce: The single biggest factor going against him is the "bounce" factor. Horses are not machines or cars, that can be turned on with a switch or a key and the response is the same every time. They are animals and they have bad days. Smarty Jones is long overdue for a bounce, which happens when a horse regresses in form after one or several strenuous efforts. He has been going hard all year long without a rest. Sooner or later, that has to catch up to him and wear him down. That he ran the best race of his life in the Preakness just three weeks earlier is even more reason to believe that he is finally going to take a step in the wrong direction or bounce. The problem for his eight rivals is that even should he bounce and lose six or seven lengths off his Preakness performance, they probably won't beat him.
2. The Mile And A Half Might Get Him: Even though he has already outrun his pedigree to win the mile-and-a-quarter Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones fans can be no more than cautiously optimistic that the mile and a half in the Belmont will be right up his alley. He is bred to be a good miler and no more. Those extra couple of furlongs can be awful tricky in the Belmont, especially for horses who aren't bred to handle it. Then again, it might be a case where he is so much better than everyone else that he could beat them at six miles.
3. A Possible Speed Duel: Trainer John Servis can't be happy that the connections of Purge changed their minds and decided to enter. Without him in the race, it looked like Smarty Jones could lope along on the lead unchallenged and set very soft fractions. That's can't happen with Purge in there. Though Todd Pletcher insists he's going to instruct jockey John Velazquez to sit behind Smarty Jones, it's not out of the question that the two go after each other at some point and don't leave enough in the tank for the stretch. Servis had trained Smarty Jones with the clear intention of honing down his natural speed to get him to relax, but he's still a pretty fast horse and he can't afford to get into a fight with Purge during any point in the race.
4. He Doesn't Like The Track: They call Belmont Big Sandy because it's a huge, deep oval. There's nothing else like it in horse racing. Here's your amazing stat of the day: Smarty Jones will attempt to become the first horse ever to win the Triple Crown without a prior start at Belmont Park. Not only has he never raced at the track, he will have only had two light training sessions over it going into Saturday. Maybe Belmont won't be to his liking.
5. It's The Belmont, Weird Stuff Happens: If you believe in hexes and jinxes, you have to start thinking that the Triple Crown is cursed. How else can you explain nine straight Triple Crown hopefuls all losing. And it's not like any of them were 10-1. Their Belmont odds were 1-5, 4-5, 4-5, 4-5, 1-1, 4-5, 8-5, 6-5 and 1-1. The odds on all nine losing are astronomical.
6. The Bad Trip Factor: Smarty Jones could probably get stopped six times and win, but if he's a little off his game and doesn't get a great trip, well, who knows? Look at War Emblem. He lost all chance when stumbling at the start in the 2002 Belmont.
7. Rock Hard Ten Improves: Rock Hard Ten has to make up a lot of lengths in a short period of time on Smarty Jones, but it's not out of the question that he can do it. This is obviously a very talented horse with a lot of room for improvement. Running second in the Preakness in just his fourth career start is a remarkable achievement. He's only going to get better.