Triple Crown aftermath
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
The dust has settled, the dream is over, the tears have dried. There is no joy in Philadelphia, as usual, and I'm revising the lyrics to "The Ballad of Smarty Jones". For the 26th consecutive year, we have no Triple Crown winner, and what have we learned?
Probably not much, being of the human species. But here are a few undeniably accurate conclusions, undoubtedly to be forgotten by next June, when another sweep appears likely and doesn't happen.
There is no such thing as a sure thing, no matter how superior a horse looks, even an undefeated one. Betting a 1-5 shot, hoping to win dimes by risking dollars, is idiotic, yet pari-mutuel lemmings will keep jumping on mortal locks until the end of time.
There is no such thing in racing as an expert, only winners and losers, and almost everybody loses money in the long run. An expert is somebody with a lot of facts to spew; the test is interpreting them correctly, and thoroughbreds will make even the sharpest look like fools at least 70 percent of the time.
There is no horse that can "save" racing, whatever that may mean. Smarty Jones came out of nowhere to become a world-beater and an international celebrity by dominating the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. His appealing tale and invincible aura created a cult of millions. He drew 120,139 fans to Belmont Park, a record for a sporting event in New York, and spiked the highest television ratings for the Belmont Stakes in 27 years.
How many first-time racegoers from Saturday will be back soon or will become regular horseplayers? Very few. There is little carryover of the passion from event days. The racetrack becomes an in place a few times a year, then the air goes out of the balloon.
More than 8,500 showed up at Philadelphia Park a week after the Preakness to watch Smarty Jones gallop in the morning. Then they snapped up as much Smarty licensed merchandise as they could carry home. Where were they the day after their hero ran his eyeballs out in as gallant a defeat as you'll ever see? Well, they weren't at Philly Park, where he came home to no welcome. The City of Brotherly Love? Even an old cynic like me was shocked.
Where were all the fans who sent cards, letters and pictures to their beloved Smarty, pledging eternal love and unshakeable confidence? Where were those nuns who were cashing tickets on him and praying for him? If they had reacted like the nuns who got physical with me as a kid, maybe Smarty is lucky they stayed home. I wouldn't have wanted to see him yanked by the ears or whacked on the butt by a ruler.
The legions of loyalists were nowhere to be found, because not even 10 people were at the stable entrance when Smarty's van rolled in. That disgraceful abandonment showed no class, so maybe Philly fans deserve all the torture their hometown teams inflict upon them. When you make the silly leap of faith to live vicariously, share the pain as well as the glory. It's a fickle, front-running world -- always has been, always will be. That's depressing.
The people behind Birdstone, the colt that beat Smarty Jones, showed more compassion for him than his so-called fans.
Trainer Nick Zito said, "I didn't rejoice. I feel sorry for that horse." Owner/breeder Marylou Whitney: "We were hoping we'd come in second, because we love Smarty." Whitney's husband, John Hendrickson, who arranged the mating that produced Birdstone, said, "We feel horrible." After crossing the wire, jockey Edgar Prado told Stewart Elliott, Smarty's rider, that he was sorry.
Elliott might have felt sorry for giving Smarty so much to do. True, the horse was geared up and refused to settle, and a 113-pound man can do only so much to restrain a wired beast that outweighs him by 900 pounds. And yes, Purge, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten were making Smarty work hard up front. But did Elliott have to keep him wide all the way, make him run quarter-miles of 23.11 and 23.68 seconds in the middle of the race and kick on for home 7 furlongs out? If Elliott had given the colt a breather for even a furlong, he might have hung on to win.
Trainer John Servis looked more angry than disappointed on NBC seconds after the finish. He took the high road and refused to blame his rider and old friend, but how could he not have been furious after being denied immortality and a winner's share of $560,000 when he was 1-5? Later, Servis was overheard saying, "Where's Stewie?" in a tone not filled with affection. Perhaps they won't go deer-hunting together soon.
So what's next for Smarty Jones? On Sunday morning, Servis said he came out of the race healthy and will get a rest. If all goes well, his summer agenda may include the Haskell Invitational Aug. 8 at Monmouth Park and the Pennsylvania Derby on Labor Day at Philly Park. After that, perhaps he'd run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont before going for the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 30 at Lone Star Park, near Dallas.
Smarty's brutally taxing Belmont might have taken more out of him than even a few months of R & R can put back in. Running hard every step for 1? miles is the ultimate test of a champion, and I hope Smarty bounces back and returns to form. Even if he does, it may take a race or two. No matter how well he's working out, and no matter how overmatched his competition may look on paper, he's not guaranteed to win next time. Draw that conclusion and you'll be ahead of most people.
"He's not done," Servis said Saturday. "You'll be seeing plenty of him, and hopefully we'll get to race him next year and he'll go on and do some great things. And he'll be noted as a great horse who didn't win the Triple Crown, like Spectacular Bid."
I hope he's right.