Two down, one to go
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
John Servis knows how hard it is to win the Triple Crown. He also knows he has a very good horse in Smarty Jones.
"We're going to the Belmont with a loaded gun," Servis said Sunday morning from Pimlico before loading Smarty Jones on to a van to go back to Philadelphia Park.
While no horse has swept the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, nine horses since that time have headed into the Belmont with trophies in the first two legs of the Triple Crown on their owner's shelves. All nine have lost, including five in the last seven years alone.
Among the nine horses who failed to complete the Triple Crown sweep since 1978, some had obvious flaws. Others faced fresh and tough challengers, like Empire Maker in 2003, who knocked off Funny Cide.
Smarty Jones, however, appears to have an easier challenge at hand, with an average group of nine of 10 assembling to take him on.
Moreover, the horse looking to become just the second undefeated Triple Crown winner in history carries with him something which is beginning to resemble an air of invincibility. He is 8-for-8 and dominated his competition in a record-setting 11 ½-length Preakness win. There's no question he is the most talented 3-year-old in the country, probably by a wide margin.
"This is the first time I've been on this road and I realize now why there's only been a handful of horses to win the Triple Crown," Smarty Jones' trainer said Sunday morning before putting the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner on a van back to his base at Philadelphia Park. "It's a very grueling road and we've been on it since January."
Servis was delighted with the way Smarty Jones came out of the race and said he is likely to return to light training on Wednesday at Philadelphia Park. Stable foreman Bill Foster said the plan is to ship to Belmont about 10 days before the race.
"He came out of the race terrific," the trainer said. "There's not one oat in the feed tub this morning. His groom pulled the tub out and he's showing me the tub. As I'm looking at it, Smarty comes from the back of the stall and dives into the tub like he's looking for more."
"A happy horse is a horse that eats," Foster added.
Servis was concerned before the Preakness was that it could be difficult for his horse to run another top effort just two weeks after the Derby. There may again be some questions about him staying on top of his game after a career-best effort in the Preakness, but Servis is hopeful that the three weeks between the final two legs of the Triple Crown will give Smarty Jones enough time to recover and that he won't bounce.
"I'm tickled to death to get the extra week," he said. "I was a little concerned going into the Preakness. I thought he was a little vulnerable since we were coming back in two weeks and there were two fresh horses in there that I was worried about. The race he ran yesterday was incredible. I'm sure he'll enjoy the extra week going into the Belmont."
Servis, who did not give Smarty Jones a workout between the Derby and Preakness, said he isn't sure how hard he will train his horse for the mile-and-a-half Belmont.
"I'll let him tell me," he said. "He's not a real hard horse to train. He lets you know what he wants to do and when he wants to do it. I'll just pay attention to him and when he's ready to do a little more we'll do a little more with him."
Smarty Jones left Pimlico at 10:12 a.m.and arrived at Philadelphia Park about 2 ½ hours later. Three Philadelphia television stations followed his trip up Interstate 95 by helicopter, broadcasting live the last several minutes of his journey.
The field for the Belmont is still taking shape, but it appears certain that Rock Hard Ten, second in the Preakness, and Eddington, who was third, will be back in the Belmont to take another try at Smarty Jones. None of the other Preakness horses are likely to return in the Belmont.
Trainer Nick Zito could have as many as four starters in the Preakness. Royal Assault, who won the Sir Barton Stakes on Preakness Day, is a certain Belmont starter. Birdstone, coming off an eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby is a possible starter, as is The Cliff's Edge, who was scratched from the Preakness due to a bruised foot. Zito could also run Pies Prospect, who is pointing for Saturday's Peter Pan.
Tapit, a disappointment when ninth in the Kentucky Derby, is a definite Belmont starter, trainer Michael Dickinson said.
Santa Anita Derby winner Castledale, the Dermot Weld-trained Relaxed Gesture, and Capitano are among other possible starters. The Peter Pan field will consist of several horses that could run back in the Belmont, including Master David, Friends Lake, Sinister G. and Swingforthefences.
"I think I need to get a race into him," said trainer John Kimmel of Florida Derby winner Friends Lake. "He got absolutely nothing out of the Kentucky Derby and it's just way too much to ask him to run a mile and a half off a no-performance since the Florida Derby."