- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

ELMONT, N.Y. — Will the Smarty party be a washout or a coronation?

Smarty Jones seeks to become horse racing’s first Triple Crown champion in 26 years when he runs in today’s 136th Belmont Stakes. He and the other eight horses in the field are expected to face the same cold, rainy conditions that ended Funny Cide’s Triple Crown chances last year.

A record 120,000 people are expected to fill Belmont Park and back the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, a probable 1-5 favorite who is generating as much prerace publicity as 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat.

“Maybe to non-racing people, it’s a happening. To racing people, it’s just the second coming,” said Secretariat owner Helen “Penny” Chenery, who will attend the race. “I want to be part of the excitement that will hold that crowd just waiting to see if he can do it. It’s just such an electric moment. I so hope he wins.”

Smarty Jones ballads are being sung. A group of nuns visited the barn yesterday to provide encouragement. Offers of TV appearances and endorsement deals are pouring in along with thousands of letters of support. Smarty Jones apparel has become the newest fad. There is even a Smartyjones.com Web site and “official” Smarty Jones manure is being offered on EBay.

The story behind the small chestnut colt captivated non-racing fans. His first trainer was killed, and his elderly owner is in poor health. Couple that with the horse fracturing his own skull in a starting gate accident and you’ve got a Disney movie in the making.

And interest in the horse continues to grow.

Pimlico drew a record 112,000 for the Preakness Stakes, and Belmont easily will eclipse its record of 103,000 even with bad weather. NBC earned its largest Preakness ratings since 1990 and second-biggest Derby viewership since 1992.

“Smarty Jones is the biggest box-office attraction to hit New York in some time,” said Bill Nader, a New York Racing Association vice president.

An estimated U.S. record $90 million nationwide will be wagered on Smarty Jones. Many $2 tickets will become souvenirs considering a victory would increase them to only about $2.40.

Belmont Park, the 99-year-old Long Island track, is the nation’s largest racing facility. It is a 650-acre oasis of large pines and spruces where six-figure crowds are accommodated without having to open the infield, something the Derby and Preakness can’t do. Belmont doesn’t even increase admission prices for the race — it’s just $2 for a grandstand seat and children are admitted for free.

But Smarty Jones will test the capacity and patience of race fans who have seen nine horses since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978 win the first two jewels only to fail the 11/2-mile “Test of Champions.”

“I have no tickets, there are no tickets, you can give me a winning lottery ticket, I still have no tickets,” NBC race announcer Tom Durkin said. “Actually if Cindy Crawford does call, I might be able to get a pair. There’s no question in my mind that this will be the biggest day in the history of Belmont Park.”

The fact that Smarty Jones is undefeated after eight races and that race fans have waited so long for a Triple Crown winner only intensifies interest.

“He’s never lost — there is something heroic about that,” Mr. Durkin said. “Probably the fact that the horse is undefeated is probably the number one reason why people are enamored with this.”

There are other reasons for his fame. The Seabiscuit phenomenon created by the best-selling book and movie helped generate new fans. Also Funny Cide’s failed Triple Crown run, highlighted by middle-class owners who rode to the races in a school bus, was racing’s biggest buzz in years and helped raise racing’s popularity.

“You don’t need to know anything about horse racing to appreciate this horse,” said Laurel equine artist Michael Geraghty, whose Smarty Jones print has nearly sold out before being released. “He doesn’t just win — he crushes his opposition. Funny Cide’s attraction was more the owners and their uncommon good luck. The public perceived them as another winner of the megaball lottery.”

The Philadelphia factor also has kindled the Smarty Jones craze. The town has gone without a sports championship of any kind since 1983, and the horse provides hope. He is known as the “Philly Flyer” and “Philly Flash” and, if he wins, a parade down Broad Street is promised.

“The Triple Crown, as far as I’m concerned, that’s above championship status,” Smarty Jones trainer John Servis said. “For us, the Kentucky Derby was our championship, and we got it done.”

Smarty Jones’ path to immortality was unconventional. He raced twice at Philadelphia Park and at Aqueduct before straying from the more competitive Derby prep races and winning three races in Arkansas. Bettors made him a 4-1 favorite in the Derby before his victory on the sloppy racetrack convinced skeptics. His record 111/2-length victory in the Preakness confirmed his ability.

“People said he took the easy route to Arkansas,” jockey Stewart Elliott said, “but in the meantime, the horse was winning, he was improving and his heart was getting bigger. By the time he stepped up to those bigger races, he was ready.”

Servis conceded that the final hours will be the toughest. He plans to wear his lucky sports jacket he purchased for the Derby. A religious medal will be underneath the saddle for the third straight race.

Mrs. Chenery remembers the pressure of Secretariat’s title when only 67,000 attended.

“It was terrible,” Mrs. Chenery said. “I never drew a free breath because everybody wanted so much to have Secretariat win the Triple Crown. It was all good vibes that I got, but it’s just really a tremendous burden to be responsible for making other people’s dreams come true.”

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