Sure, we loved Smarty Jones, loved his story, rooted for his trainer and jockey and even his crusty wheelchair-bound owner. In return, Smarty gave us five glorious weeks that were as exciting and tantalizing as anything this sport has experienced since maybe Secretariat. He gave the game a tremendous lift, with his picture on the cover of ESPN The Magazine and Sports Illustrated, with the television ratings that went through the roof, to all those people who discovered horse racing because they liked the story of the little chestnut from the small-time track who had so much heart and ability.
But should we be satisfied? Absolutely not. Smarty Jones, who was retired Monday due to chronic bruising of the bottom of the cannon bone in all four fetlock joints, could and should have given us a lot more.
In a perfect world, Smarty Jones would have returned for the Pennsylvania Derby and the Pegasus and wiped out inferior competition in both. Then he would have turned in the best performance of his career to beat older starts like Pleasantly Perfect in the Breeders' Cup.
With fans and pundits now comparing him to the real all-time greats like Citation, Seattle Slew, Count Fleet and Affirmed, he would have blitzed his way through a spectacular 4-year-old campaign and won another Breeders' Cup Classic. That's how much ability he had. Then, owners Roy and Patricia Chapman could have justifiably claimed that the horse had proven his greatness, done everything he could have done for the sport and earned his retirement.
That perfect world hasn't existed in a long time. We can dream of such things; they are mere fantasies.
Why isn't Smarty going to run again? It has something to do with the fact horses are far too fragile and a lot to do with the fact there's way too much money being thrown around by the breeding industry.
It's almost unheard of for a top horse to get through a full campaign, run at the highest level and not suffer some sort of injury. Smarty did run hard for a long time, starting back in the winter at Aqueduct and he battled hard through three Triple Crown races. It obviously took a toll on him causing injuries that made it unlikely he could start again this year.
But the Smarty camp, taking part in a teleconference with the media Monday, couldn't come up with one good reason why the colt couldn't race next year. In fact, Dr. Larry Bramlage, the noted veterinarian who examined Smarty Jones' ailing feet, made it clear that Smarty Jones would be just fine after some rest and could race as a 4-year-old.
"We bring horses back from this kind of injury all the time," Bramlage said. "...The prognosis for full recovery was excellent."
In the glee of the Triple Crown campaign, the Chapmans had said they would race Smarty again next year, and said all the right things about doing it for the sport and for his many, many fans. That was, however, before they inked a $39 million deal with Three Chimneys Farm, where he will stand at stud. There was nothing in the agreement that precluded the horse from racing next year, but the deal changed everything. A $39 million animal is a precious commodity that must be pampered. It's not in the owners's and breeder's best interest to race them when they could be injured or a few defeats could lower their stud value.
When asked why they were unwilling to bring the horse back as a 4-year-old, the best the Chapmans could offer was that they couldn't bear to take any risks furthering hurting a horse who had done so much for them. It was as if they hadn't heard a thing Bramlage had said. Then again, what were they supposed to say? Smarty Jones was just too valuable to race anymore. Most owners would have made the same decision.
It's up to history now to judge Smarty Jones the race horse. Anyone taking a closer look at his career will need to evaluate not only the hype he created but his record. It was good, but hardly worthy of placement alongside the all-time greats of this game. After all, he won all of two Grade I stakes races, even if they were the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and just three graded races over all. He clearly didn't accomplish nearly enough on the racetrack to merit inclusion alongside some of the greatest horse the sport has ever known.
That doesn't mean it couldn't have happened.
"I look at pictures of him and see how he was still immature and still putting it all together," trainer John Servis said. "He might have turned out to be one of the best of all time. Unfortunately, people will never be able to see that."
No, they won't. A star flashed before our eyes, dazzled us and said goodbye, leaving us wanting much, much more. It's a shame. It's horse racing.