Wednesday, June 2, 2004

The owners and jockeys of the last three Triple Crown champions agree: Smarty Jones will win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and complete the first sweep of horse racing’s jewels in 26 years.

The unbeaten colt figures to be the heaviest favorite at the Belmont since 1979, when Spectacular Bid entered as a 3-10 choice — and lost.

However, the people behind the best horses of the past three decades — Triple Crown champions Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) — think things will turn out better for Smarty Jones.

“The only thing that will stop him from winning the race is he hurts himself or can’t get out in the clear,” said Ron Turcotte, the jockey who rode Secretariat.

Turcotte even predicted a 25-length victory for Smarty Jones, who won the Preakness Stakes by a record 11 lengths. Turcotte said he wasn’t comparing Smarty Jones to Secretariat, whose 31-length Belmont triumph is considered the sport’s greatest moment. He just thinks Smarty Jones will dominate.

“Some people got insulted because I made that statement,” Turcotte said. “But I don’t recall ever mentioning Secretariat along the way. … But I feel very confident of the horse being handled just right … and I feel very [comfortable] that he’s the real thing.”

Smarty Jones is getting all the attention due the real thing, as did his Triple Crown predecessors. Secretariat appeared on the cover of three major news magazines after the Belmont. Smarty Jones not only has appeared on the cover of two major magazines but also inside “People” magazine.

Smarty Jones’ trainer, John Servis, said he thinks the popularity of his horse is in part because Americans are looking for upbeat stories in a difficult time. Similarly, a 1973 Detroit Free Press editorial said, “A nation sick of Watergate and Vietnam turned to Secretariat again and again for inspiration.”

“I think they’re quite parallel,” said Helen “Penny” Chenery, who owned Secretariat. “It’s a time when we want to feel good about something, and we can’t make you feel good about what’s going on in our country and our foreign policy now. Smarty Jones is very appealing and easy to love, and so are his connections.

“I do think the time in which this is occurring makes him even more attractive, and I felt that way about Secretariat as well. The country needed him.”

These owners and jockeys aren’t jumping on the Smarty Jones bandwagon. They expressed reservations in the past about challengers for the Triple Crown who ultimately failed. They aren’t just hoping racing will gain a new champion. They expect a successor to their great horses, now dead.

“From what I’ve seen, it looks like Smarty Jones should be more than good enough,” said Affirmed’s jockey, Steve Cauthen. “My feeling is if [jockey Stewart Elliott] can get Smarty Jones to relax wherever he’s at … I think that everybody is going to have a tough time saying which way he went.”

Said Karen Taylor, who co-owned Seattle Slew: “I think everyone’s for Smarty Jones. He’s got a cute name. He loves to run. He’s got the speed.”

Maybe it’s the chestnut coloring and the blue-and-white silks that attract Secretariat’s followers. Perhaps it’s Smarty Jones’ mystique as an unbeaten that draws the backers of Seattle Slew, who also was undefeated. For Affirmed’s connections, it could be Smarty Jones’ “push button” acceleration.

“The thing I notice about Smarty Jones is that he’s a high energy horse,” Chenery said. “He seems to love racing, loves to run, but he has lots to give.”

Added Seattle Slew co-owner Mickey Taylor: “You still have the mystique of Smarty Jones being undefeated, and that’s the way we were when we went to the Belmont. I think being undefeated adds the extra pizzazz to Smarty Jones.”

But could Smarty Jones beat his three predecessors? That’s where past winners halt the accolades.

“You can’t compare horses that didn’t race under the same circumstances — different generations, different racetracks, different conditions that day,” Chenery said. “The only comparable test is winning these three races. And if he becomes the 12th, and I look forward to his doing that, I think he should be listed with any of these champions.”

Elliott understands the reluctance to rank Smarty Jones among the greats. After all, there’s still one more test.

“I think it’s too early,” Elliott said. “I don’t think there’ll ever be another Secretariat. There’s nothing I would love more than for my horse to be another Secretariat. All I can tell you is he’s improving all the time, and he’s on that track. If he continues to improve, then the possibility is certainly there.”

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