What else could Elliott have done?
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
The slings and arrows were predictably launched in the Sunday morning papers chronicling the unthinkable defeat of Smarty Jones and they were pointed right at jockey Stewart Elliott's head. Everyone said the Belmont was nothing more than a coronation and everyone couldn't be that wrong. So there must be someone to blame. How about the nice little jockey from the minor league tracks?
Elliott got spanked around pretty good in some of the papers Sunday morning. "Elliott has rough ride, Prado smooth as silk," read one headline. The headline over a column written by Paul Moran in Newsday read, "Elliott shows lack of smarts." Moran wrote: "Perhaps (Smarty Jones) really is push button, but Elliott was pushing no buttons yesterday except the panic button and the one that turned his brain off." The Asbury Park Press, noting previous Belmont gaffes, had this to say, "Ronnie Franklin on Spectacular Bid . . . Chris McCarron on Alysheba . . . Kent Desormeaux on Real Quiet . . . welcome to the club, Stewie."
The primary knock was that Elliott asked too much of Smarty Jones early, the reason he was running on rubbery legs in the final furlongs.
Were these people watching the same races I was? Elliott's job turned into mission impossible. He was riding a horse who wanted no part of a mile and a half on a day when he reverted to his headstrong tendencies that trainer John Servis thought he had worked out of him. Then three different horses ganged up on him at several different points in the race, making sure that he didn't relax. That wasn't Elliott's doing.
"I would've liked to have sat longer, but other horses forced me," Elliott said Sunday from Monmouth Park. "Sometimes that's just the luck of racing. Sometimes that's just the way it goes. As soon as I got him on the backside, I was trying to get him settled. I knew he was going to take me to the lead. He was taking me there, whether I wanted him to or not. I was hoping that once he could get the lead by himself he would settle. He never got the chance to because, first, Eddington came up on his outside and put pressure on him all the way down the backside. Then Rock Hard Ten showed up as soon as I got rid of Eddington to press him. He never got a break."
There were some jockeys out there, Jerry Bailey among them, who seemed to be riding to beat Smarty Jones and not to win the Belmont. Note, please that Eddington, Rock Hard Ten and Purge all finished off the board.
But even after all that, Smarty Jones appeared to have the race won. He just couldn't hold off the challenge from Birdstone, who had a perfect trip from off the pace and caught Smarty inside the final 70 yards.
What else could Elliott have done?
"It's hard to say what I could have done differently," he said. "What do you do, choke him and drag him back? I had as much hold as I dare take on him. In racing, you have a split second to decide what you think is right. It's not like you get to stop and think about it. That's his style of running. He was in position the way he's always in position. He's always laid close. Do you take a horse and drag him back and take him out of his game? Then if he got beat you'd really be kicking yourself. Then they'd be saying, 'Geez, what was he doing.'"
If anyone is to blame, besides the rival riders who kept attacking Smarty Jones, it is trainer John Servis, who despite his best efforts, didn't have his horse properly prepared for a mile and a half. He tried to take the edge off, but Smarty Jones was still too sharp for his own good.
"Again, he didn't settle," Servis said. "I think where he had him positioned, he could have gotten him to settle and got a breather, but then Bailey with Eddington came right up alongside of him...He broke sharp and he broke running. What are you gonna do? I thought Stewie did a fine job. Those other guys sacrificed their horses."
So Smarty Jones got beat. It wasn't Elliott's fault. Deal with it.