- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

ELMONT, N.Y. — Birdstone jockey Edgar Prado was sorry. He didn’t want to ruin the Smarty party.

Birdstone had just won the 136th Belmont Stakes yesterday in a stirring stretch run over Triple Crown seeker Smarty Jones, and the former Maryland rider was despondent. It was the second time in three years Prado beat a Triple Crown wannabe, but he still felt bad about disappointing the Belmont Park record crowd of 120,139.

“I’m very sorry for Mr. [John] Servis and Smarty Jones, but I had to do my job,” Prado said. “This is business. I’m very sorry it had to be me.”

Sorry? Sorry he just won a major stakes race and $60,000 as his winner’s share? But Smarty Jones jockey Stewart Elliott understood Prado’s apology.

“Everybody wanted to see this horse win,” Elliott said. “Everybody has their job to do, and it didn’t happen, but Edgar was a little sad about it.”

Smarty Jones entered as one of the more popular horses of the past quarter-century. The undefeated colt looked a cinch to become the 12th Triple Crown winner entering the stretch as the crowd roared its approval. But Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones for a one-length victory as the crowd gasped. Silence greeted the winner when he crossed the finish line.

“Great expectations bring great disappointment,” Birdstone trainer Nick Zito said.

Zito has long yearned to win the Belmont at his hometown track. The New Yorker finished second five times before entering Birdstone, who was considered the lesser half of his entry to Royal Assault, who finished third. However, the day’s emotion was so intense even Zito apologized to Servis in the winner’s circle when the Servis came to congratulate him.

“I said, ‘John, I’m very sorry,’ and he said, ‘What do you mean? You did a great job,’” Zito said. “Smarty Jones will still go down as one of the great ones. The Triple Crown takes a lot out of these horses, and sometimes that’s what happens. That’s what happened to Smarty Jones.

“I would have been happy with second place.”

Said Birdstone owner Marylou Whitney: “We really love Smarty. Smarty Jones has done more for the racing community and those that love horses. It gives everyone a chance to say, ‘This could happen to me.’”

It did happen to one of racing’s royal families, which earned its fourth Belmont trophy. But in an event that looked so promising to a sport long yearning for a superstar, the 1-mile distance was one-eighth mile too long for Smarty Jones. And it stung.

“I’m happy and sad at the same time because we are really looking for a champion,” Prado said. “A mile and a half is a very tricky distance.”

It was a day of high emotions. More than 35,000 boarded trains from Philadelphia to root for their hometown hero. They wore Phillies hats and jerseys despite being surrounded by New York fans. Normally fans from the two cities are bitter rivals, but they united behind Smarty Jones. Even the Philly Phanatic mascot posed for pictures with fans wearing Yankees hats.

But that broke down in the minutes before the race when a melee nearly erupted in the grandstand near the finish line. A Smarty Jones heckler was quickly surrounded by more than 100 angry fans calling him a profane name and some pushing and shoving before police restored order. Fans then started chanting “Smarty!” as the field was loaded into the gate after a five-minute delay caused by a reluctant Rock Hard Ten.

Smarty gear wasn’t too visible in the crowd, mostly because the five-week turnaround since the Kentucky Derby was too soon to produce enough apparel to meet the demand. One stand sold its 48 Smarty Jones hats immediately. Some fans made their own Smarty Jones shirts, including one young woman who wrote “Go Smarty Go” on the front and “Filly looking for stallion” on the back.

The Belmont isn’t nearly as stuffy as the Kentucky Derby, where the crowd dresses formally. New Yorkers look like they’re sitting in a bar watching a ballgame. For every woman in a designer suit, there were 10 guys in T-shirts and shorts drinking beer. Forget the mint juleps from Kentucky. New Yorkers pay $10 for a “Belmont Breeze” that tastes like a bad Bloody Mary.

Money was flowing freely as Smarty Jones attracted casual and die-hard fans. Faux $20 bills that filled the grandstand floor turned out to be handbills for New York Giants ticket scalpers.

Perhaps the biggest loser was the New York treasury. Tickets uncashed after one year are sent to the state general fund, so those keeping winning wagers as souvenirs would have meant millions of dollars for New York.

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