- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 6, 2004

ELMONT, N.Y. — Jockey Stewart Elliott was supposed to be taking a cursory peek over his shoulder as Smarty Jones headed for immortality, just as Secretariat rider Ron Turcotte did during a 31-length runaway in 1973.

The problem was Elliott not only saw Birdstone, he saw trouble. Birdstone was the only rival who could prevent Smarty Jones from becoming racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion, and he was offering much more than a routine late challenge.

“When I peeked over and saw Birdstone coming, I said we might be in trouble here,” Elliott said later.

He was in trouble — big trouble. So big that Birdstone denied Smarty Jones’ bid to join racing’s legends.

The “Little Man” dethroned “Little Red” by taking the 136th Belmont Stakes yesterday before a record crowd of 120,139. Birdstone made up a six-length stretch deficit to beat Smarty Jones by one length while covering 1 miles in 2:272/5.

Birdstone trainer Nick Zito said earlier he would be glad to finish second to Smarty Jones, but he was underestimating his own horse. Birdstone was once among the best 2-year-old colts last year but never matured physically this season and fell behind his generational running mates. He finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby and hadn’t won a major race since the Champagne Stakes on Oct.4 at Belmont. Zito skipped the Preakness to give Birdstone time to refresh at Saratoga and ambush Smarty Jones.

“I think this is my greatest win,” Zito said. “It was very fulfilling to me. To pull it off is really sweet. The great [trainer] Woody Stephens once said, ‘These steaks will taste like butter tonight.’”

Certainly, it was a disappointment for “Team Smarty,” which fell one-eighth mile short of racing history. Smarty Jones became the 10th straight Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winner to lose the Belmont. The 35-100 favorite was the heaviest choice since Spectacular Bid (3-10) lost in 1979, when he also failed to sweep the Triple Crown. Smarty Jones was an even heavier 1-9 choice until one hour before the race, when bargain shoppers began backing long shots.

“We had a shot to make big history here,” trainer John Servis said. “I’m not going to put my head down. We accomplished a lot. Our main goal was to get to the Derby.”

The early pace determined the finish. The track was fast the entire afternoon despite occasional light rain. Smarty Jones ran down front-runner Purge leaving the first turn and did a sharp opening three-quarters mile in 1:113/5. Elliott decided not to restrain Smarty Jones to save some energy for a possible stretch duel, hoping an uncontested lead along the backstretch would let the colt re-energize by slowing the pace. Instead, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten stayed with him until the final turn.

“I had a little trouble getting him to settle [down],” Elliott said. “If I could get into the backside and get a clear lead, maybe then he’d relax. Then I had one on either side. He just never got a break the whole race. I had to just keep letting him out a little bit at a time, and it just took its toll on him.”

Servis also sensed trouble even though Smarty Jones had a 1-length lead on the final turn. The colt lacked the fluid stride that had fueled his record 11-length Preakness victory. He was running choppily despite pulling away entering the stretch.

“I knew when we turned on the backside that we were in a little bit of trouble,” Servis said. “He just wasn’t settling as nice as he had in the previous two races. He was dragging Stew out of the saddle. I had a bad feeling. You can’t do that and get a mile and a half.”

Elliott knew Preakness runner-up Rock Hard Ten was spent entering the stretch but looked around to find Birdstone coming outside. He began urging Smarty Jones with one-eighth remaining, but the result was obvious as the largest crowd ever outside of a Kentucky Derby hushed. Birdstone caught Smarty Jones inside the sixteenth pole and thoughts of the next superhorse were gone before Birdstone crossed the wire.

“You can look like you have everything wrapped up and are heading into that winner’s circle, and it doesn’t always turn out that way,” Servis said. “That’s horse racing, and you just saw it as good as it gets.”

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