- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

ELMONT, N.Y. — Racing is ready to anoint a superhorse — again — and this time it finally might happen.

Smarty Jones seeks the first Triple Crown championship since 1978 in today’s 136th Belmont Stakes, with people around his eight rivals openly conceding the race. The expected rain should only help Smarty Jones, who won the Kentucky Derby over a sloppy track.

Yet nine Triple Crown seekers have failed since 1979. Bad luck and bad horses have conspired to keep racing’s immortals safe from unworthy companions. So the only sure thing is that in racing nothing is a sure thing.

“If he gets beat, it’s going to be by something out of the ordinary,” said Smarty Jones trainer John Servis.

That’s because Smarty Jones is on an extraordinary run. The undefeated colt has never been pressed in his eight victories. His 111/2-length margin in the Preakness Stakes was a record, and Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte predicts his “Little Red” successor will win the Belmont by 25 lengths.

So there’s no pressure — just an estimated $90million being wagered nationwide and the hopes of fans everywhere riding on the colt.

“We’re starting to get a little nervous,” Servis said. “Obviously, we’re a lot farther thanany of us expected we’d be. The fact that we have a chance to make history is really starting to set in. This is the big one, and I’ll be glad when it’s over.”

Skeptics and long shot bettors have a couple of options. Rock Hard Ten and Purge are talented runners who could capitalize if Smarty Jones runs poorly. Trainer Bobby Frankel ended Funny Cide’s Triple Crown hopes last year with Empire Maker, though a victory by his current entry, Master David would be a major upset.

“Smarty Jones looks like 10 lengths the best,” Frankel said. “The thing that keeps on coming back in my mind and a lot of other people’s minds is Spectacular Bid. He looked like a cinch [in 1979] and he [lost]. … I would like to win, but I don’t really think I can.”

Most opposing trainers admitted they would be surprised to win. Yet those nine other Triple Crown losers fuel hopes for a shocker.

“I don’t think the game would be on the up-and-up if I wasn’t trying to beat him,” said Purge trainer Todd Pletcher.

Detractors also can also point to jockey Stewart Elliott’s 1-for-13 career mark at Belmont, with the win coming five years ago. Elliott might not even ride over the track before the Belmont unless he picks up a last-minute mount on the undercard. Given Belmont’s deceptive wide turns, track knowledge is more important than at most other ovals.

“Naturally, if you’re not there all the time, it’s a little bit of a disadvantage,” Elliott said. “But you know where you’re starting and you know where you’re finishing, so you just try to take it as you go.”

Servis never wavered from Elliott, even when Jerry Bailey became available on the eve of the Kentucky Derby. The underappreciated jockey won more than 3,000 races at Middle Atlantic tracks without gaining notice, but his rides in the Derby and Preakness were classics. Servis said they’ll discuss race strategy only briefly.

“I have visions about how the race could set up,” the trainer said. “I’ll maybe talk to Stew about that a little bit, but I don’t want to put too much in his head because it might not set up like that.”

This is a Belmont with little strategy — just catch Smarty Jones. There’s no strong front-runner who can steal the race. There’s no late-runner who can catch Smarty Jones in the stretch. The only option is to stay with him entering the stretch and hope for a break. Just don’t expect one, because the lengthy 11/2-mile distance alone isn’t going to beat Smarty Jones.

“This horse doesn’t seem to get tired,” Servis said. “I think he’ll enjoy the 11/2 miles.”

A victory would be worth $5.8million to Smarty Jones, making him racing’s leading career earner at $13.2million. It also would be the kind of monumental moment racing has long awaited.

Although he expects to collapse soon, the Philadelphia trainer has shown no signs of stress.

“I think it’s because we’ve been so busy,” he said, “it’s going to come crashing down on everybody Saturday — win, lose or draw.”

If Smarty Jones loses, Servis knows Philadelphia fans who have so embraced him while looking for the town’s first title in 21 years will forget the colt. And maybe Smarty Jones will act like a typical Eagles fan, too.

“Smarty fits right in with us,” Servis said. “If he doesn’t win, he’ll probably boo me.”

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