- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 3, 2004

ELMONT, N.Y. — Smarty Jones’ path to the Triple Crown is cleaner than a church altar.

Smarty Jones likely will face little resistance in Saturday’s 136th Belmont Stakes in his bid to end racing’s 26-year championship drought. Rock Hard Ten might be the only one of eight rivals who can threaten the Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winner, and even his trainer conceded they’ll have to get lucky to knock off the heavy favorite. Lucky wouldn’t begin to describe an upset by most of the field.

“There is no horse out there, based on the races they have run, that can beat him,” said NBC race announcer Tom Durkin. “He’s just a better horse than these horses are. I don’t see any other horses beating him in the conventional sense. The burden of history is really what he’s running against, not his opponents on the track.”

In other words, Smarty Jones should be a cinch unless he falls down.

Six of the last nine Triple Crown seekers lost to a legitimate stakes winner in the Belmont. However, Purge’s Peter Pan Stakes victory May22 is the only graded stakes triumph among the rest of the Belmont field. The competitors are a combined 12-for-35 overall this year compared to Smarty Jones’ 6-for-6. Five runners lost their previous race.

There’s also no top contender who skipped the Preakness to ambush Smarty Jones in the Belmont like last year, when Empire Maker upset Funny Cide after finishing second as the Derby favorite. Master David bypassed the Preakness after finishing 12th in the Derby on May1.

“There was always kind of an undercurrent of feeling that maybe Empire Maker was always a better horse than Funny Cide,” Durkin said. “There’s not that this year. Smarty Jones’ victories have just been so dominating and he’s undefeated. There is a feeling out there that there really hasn’t been, probably not since that feeling of Seattle Slew’s invincibility and Secretariat’s invincibility, even though there have been five horses that have attempted it the last seven years.”

At least the past Belmont losers fell to good horses. Bet Twice beat Alysheba in 1987, and Easy Goer dusted Sunday Silence in 1989 to avenge their Kentucky Derby-Preakness runner-up finishes. Touch Gold nearly caught Silver Charm in the 1997 Preakness before beating him in the Belmont. Victory Gallop’s nose win over Real Quiet (1998) was the precursor to a strong career. Empire Maker was considered better than Funny Cide despite the latter’s Derby-Preakness triumphs.

There have been flukes like Sarava (2002) denying War Emblem and Summing (1981) besting Pleasant Colony when the latter was denied anti-bleeding medication under New York’s former rules. But the Triple Crown largely has been denied by legitimate horses rather than long shots.

So why enter if a loss is virtually assured? Because War Emblem fell coming out of the starting gate, Spectacular Bid (1979) stepped on a safety pin before the race, Charismatic (1999) broke his leg in the stretch and Funny Cide couldn’t handle mud.

Then there’s the human element. Silver Charm wasn’t pushed hard enough at the wire and was caught in the final yards. Jockey Kent Desormeaux admits moving Real Quiet too soon. Alysheba was caught in traffic on the final turn.

Smarty Jones faces a thin 3-year-old crop. His potential competition was depleted when several thousand Kentucky foals were lost in 2001 because of a virus. Rock Hard Ten has the most potential but has raced only four times and needs another six months to reach his potential. Birdstone never improved after a solid 2-year-old season. Caiman raced in Mexico last year. Tap Dancer has lost six straight. Eddington has three straight third-place finishes.

Anything short of a runaway for Smarty Jones will be disappointing. The odds shouldn’t be to win but by how much.

“It’s hard to catch something you can’t keep up with,” said Desormeaux, who lost the Derby and Preakness aboard Imperialism. “I can tell whoever wants to beat him to go where he goes, but you have to be able to go with him and that’s the problem.”

Said Rock Hard Ten trainer Jason Orman: “If Smarty Jones runs the race he ran last time and we beat him, I’d be surprised. We have to hope our horse improves a bit and Smarty Jones regresses a bit and the distance helps a little bit.”

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