'Smarty' will chase Triple Crown at Belmont
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
BALTIMORE -- Philadelphia fans -- who've booed even Santa Claus -- are notorious for their viciousness. Maybe it's because Philly has had so few champions, and none since the 76ers won it all in 1983. But the drought is over in the City of Brotherly Love, which has given its hardened heart to a magnificent horse. Suddenly, the greatest cynics in American sports are giddy. Thank you, Smarty Jones.
The four-legged Philadelphia Flyer has run through a magical spring when the endlessly exasperating failures of the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies and Sixers have been forgotten, at least temporarily. The undefeated 3-year-old phenomenon keeps playing "Can you top this?" with himself, and Saturday he surpassed his Kentucky Derby triumph with a historic runaway in the Preakness Stakes. As Smarty Jones blew away the competition, fans at his home base, Philadelphia Park, exulted over their new hero and clutched winning tickets that became souvenirs, not cash.
Now that's devotion.
Smarty Jones routed nine hopelessly overmatched opponents, finishing 11½ lengths ahead of runner-up Rock Hard Ten, the greatest margin in the 129 runnings of the second spring classic. The chestnut son of Elusive Quality made his puny 3-5 odds look like a gigantic overlay as he ran his record to 8-for-8 and moved within one win of becoming the first undefeated Triple Crown winner since Seattle Slew in 1977 and the leading money-winner of all time.
Smarty Jones' perfection and charisma helped attract a crowd of 112,668, smashing the Preakness record of 104,454 set in 2001. Betting marks fell, too, with total handle exceeding $85.1 million, including almost $58.8 million on the big race.
As his superstar left the field farther and farther behind, trainer John Servis smiled proudly. There was no explosion of joy at sultry Pimlico as there was at rainy Churchill Downs, when Servis hugged 77-year-old owner/breeder Roy Chapman and whooped with delight. But inside, Servis was overwhelmed.
"I got goose bumps," he said. "This horse is great, and this jock [Stewart Elliott] is pretty darn good, too. Smarty Jones came through for America. I knew he had to bring his best game, and he brought it big-time. I'm just overwhelmed. I love it. As long as Smarty tells us he's ready, it's on to the Belmont.''
Gary Stevens flew from France to ride Rock Hard Ten, a magnificent specimen making only his fourth career start. After delaying post time by refusing to load, he ran to his terrific looks, which wasn't nearly good enough.
"I was absolutely no match for the winner," Stevens said. "Entering the stretch, I knew I had another gear, but the other horse had about four more gears. We could be seeing some history in the making here.
"That horse is as good as any I've ever seen, and I've seen some good ones and been on some good ones, and I was on a good one today. Smarty really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away."
Once Smarty Jones cruised past the spent pacesetter Lion Heart approaching the quarter pole, the question about the outcome became by how much, not who. Elliott hand-rode to the wire as the colt pricked his ears as if looking for a challenge. Elliott could have thrown away his whip at the eighth pole, because it was excess baggage. Perhaps to keep from getting bored, Elliott gave Smarty a few love taps.
"I just tapped him two or three times, just to let him know that it was time to go," Elliott said. "He just took me around out there. He's a great horse."
Smarty Jones paid $3.40 after running 1 3/16 miles in 1:55.59 and earned $650,000, raising his career bankroll to more than $7.4 million. If he wins the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes on June 5, he will receive a $5-million bonus for the first Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed in 1978. He is the sixth horse in the past eight years to win the Derby and Preakness, following Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002) and Funny Cide (2003).
Coming in third, two lengths behind Rock Hard Ten, was Eddington, ridden by Jerry Bailey. He was a head in front of Lion Heart, who held on for fourth, a head better than Imperialism. The exacta paid $24.60, the trifecta was worth $177.20 and the $1 superfecta returned $230.70.
The pace scenario, as expected, unfolded like the Derby, with Lion Heart, ridden by Mike Smith, leading into the first turn as Smarty Jones tracked in second. Lion Heart went five-wide into the turn and drifted into the six-path on the backstretch as Elliott stayed within striking distance, waiting to pounce.
"My horse struggled from the word go," Smith said. "He kept trying to get out. I stayed after him and kept him in as best I could, but Smarty Jones was just amazing today."
Lion Heart set moderate fractions, a half-mile in 47.32 seconds and 6 furlongs in 1:11.53, but it was only a matter of time before he would pack it in. Elliott made his move leaving the three-eighths pole, angling inside of Lion Heart and quickly blowing the race open. "There was plenty of room," Elliott said, "so I went inside just in case anybody was coming."
No worries there, and the coronation began as the competition ended. Smarty Jones expanded his advantage to five lengths at the eighth pole and added 6¼ to it as he glided effortlessly to the wire.
Smith saluted his conqueror.
Makes you wonder how many rivals will show up to take him on at Belmont Park.
"Smarty Jones is just an amazing horse," Smith said. "All of the other 3-year-olds were just born in the wrong year."