If California Chrome is successful and wins Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978 will be celebrated for accomplishing that long-awaited goal.
There will be a sense of relief that finally, after a dozen failed attempts with horses winning the first two legs of horse racing's most treasured prize, the question of whether or not a horse will ever win the Triple Crown again will be silenced.
California Chrome, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, will go into the record books as the 12th Triple Crown winner in American racing, taking his place among great horses like Secretariat, Citation and War Admiral.
But he will not be beloved. He may wind up being the Triple Crown winner, but he was not the horse who should have been the next winner of horse racing's highest trifecta.
No, the horse who was right — and ripe — to be America's next Triple Crown winner won at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, but came up just short at Belmont Park 10 years ago.
California Chrome will be honored. But Smarty Jones was loved.
This horse should have been the one who finally broke the Triple Crown drought. Smarty Jones was right out of central casting. Not only would Disney have done a horse movie about him by now if he had won the Triple Crown, we might be looking at Smarty Jones II or III by now — the horse version of the "Rocky" franchise.
He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They talked of holding a parade for him down Broad Street in his hometown of Philadelphia. The governor of Pennsylvania invited Smarty Jones to the state capitol. An army of photographers recorded his every move, and reporters fell over themselves to pick and choose any of the stories that surrounded the beloved horse.
Smarty Jones had nearly killed himself in a track accident the year before he won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, smashing his head against an iron bar and fracturing his skull. He was so ugly after the accident that he was nicknamed "Quasimodo," with a swollen head and eyes falling out of their sockets.
It was a beast that turned into a beauty.
His first trainer, Bobby Comac, was murdered along with his wife in their New Jersey home by their son, reportedly in a dispute over money. So his good friend John Servis, a small-town trainer out of Charles Town, West Virginia, took over training the horse and suddenly found himself beating out legends like Nick Zito and Bob Baffert.
The jockey, Stewart Elliott, had battled alcoholism and never raced in the Triple Crown series before, becoming the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby on his first try since Ron Franklin rode Spectacular Bid in 1979.
The owner, Roy Chapman, suffered from emphysema and had to be wheeled into press conferences with an oxygen tank.
This was the horse who should have won the Triple Crown.
When Smarty Jones won the Preakness, veteran jockey Gary Stevens, who finished second riding Rock Hard Ten, said the horse "really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away. I think we are seeing history."
All that was in the way of history was the 1.5 mile stretch of track at Belmont Park. America was poised to celebrate and embrace the next Triple Crown winner. This was the one.
And then a 36-1 longshot messed it up for everyone.
When Birdstone edged out Smarty Jones to win the 2004 Belmont Stakes, America groaned.
The winning jockey, Edgar Prado, apologized. "I am very sorry I had to do this," he told reporters after winning the Belmont Stakes.
The winning trainer, Zito, said the outcome was sad. "It's sad because Smarty is great for racing," he said.
The crowd booed the Whitneys, owners of Birdstone, during the post-race interview.
"We really love Smarty, and I think that Smarty Jones has done so much for racing and the racing community," Birdstone owner Marylou Whitney said.
It was like nothing we had ever seen before. Imagine the Miami Heat apologizing for defeating the San Antonio Spurs for the NBA title last season. Imagine Russell Wilson apologizing for beating Peyton Manning in last year's Super Bowl.
I doubt if anyone is going to apologize Saturday if they beat California Chrome. And if the horse wins and we finally have a Triple Crown champion, it will be duly noted in history.
But destiny was cheated in 2004. This should have been Smarty Jones' place in history.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of "The Sports Fix," noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com
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