- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

BALTIMORE — Smarty Jones stared down a long row of photographers awaiting his van yesterday, stopping long enough to pose. The champion had arrived.

The first undefeated Kentucky Derby winner since 1977 Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew enters Saturday’s 129th Preakness Stakes as a conservative 8-5 morning-line favorite. A record crowd of more than 105,000 is expected as a large Philadelphia contingent follows its hometown hero to Pimlico Race Course.

Smarty Jones mania is replicating last year’s Funny Cide madness, but the current star’s chances of sweeping the Triple Crown appear more legitimate than recent failed predecessors. After seven straight victories, the little chestnut colt has clearly emerged as the nation’s best 3-year-old.

Though Smarty Jones entered stall 40 of the Preakness Stakes barn, where Triple Crown champions Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) once stayed, racing has been overrun by phony Triple Crown contenders. Since 1997, five Derby-Preakness winners have failed to take the Belmont.

Funny Cide (2003) was a poor third, and War Emblem (2002) stumbled leaving the starting gate for eighth. Neither did much after the Triple Crown races. Maybe they simply peaked on two Saturdays in May.

But comparisons between Smarty Jones and Seattle Slew keep growing. Both transform from mild-mannered colts to leaders of the herd when races start. Smarty Jones stares down rivals with an icy glare that belies his smallish form.

“A reporter told me [Seattle Slew trainer] Billy Turner mentioned when you looked at Seattle Slew in the stall, he looked like just another horse,” said Smarty Jones trainer John Servis, “but the closer you got to the paddock, he changed his form into something special. I listened to the guy and had a smile on my face because that’s my horse. Something changes between the stall and the paddock. He’s not the same horse.”

Smarty Jones consistently lays slightly off the lead until the final turn before pulling away. It worked twice at Philadelphia Park and once at Aqueduct before he swept three stakes races at Oaklawn Park.

The Derby showed Smarty Jones’ toughness when he briefly bounced between two rivals on each side heading into the first turn. A softer horse would have shied from contact and dropped back. Instead, Smarty Jones accelerated into second behind Lion Heart. He stalked the leader until grabbing a head advantage entering the turn. By the sixteenth pole, Servis could hardly believe it would be an easy 23/4-length victory.

“I had people yelling at the sixteenth pole that we were going to win and I was going to throw them out of the box,” Servis said. “When they turned for home, I had the binoculars on him and they were eye to eye and [Smarty Jones jockey] Stewart [Elliott] hadn’t called on him yet. I was feeling pretty good.”

Servis wasn’t surprised by the Derby triumph. He knew the colt was good at first glance.

“The first day we saw Smarty and watched him work out, [Servis] sat down with me, and said, ‘Chappy, this is a nice horse. This horse could go somewhere,’” owner Roy Chapman said. “I said, ‘John, the only thing I want [is] to go to the Derby. He laid me out a plan, and that day, I swear to you as I sit here, that day he said here’s what we are doing with this horse, and if he goes the way we’ll say he goes, he’ll go to the Derby. John did not deviate one inch. He ran it just the way he was going to run it that day.”

Nicknamed “Granite” for his durable conditioning, the colt hasn’t been stressed by the heavy attention that has ranged from rows of photographers to helicopters. Many great horses — John Henry, Secretariat and Cigar — loved to pose for onlookers. Smarty Jones still plays with the hay hanging next to the stall, still eats to the bottom of the feed bin. Servis wishes he could handle the stress as well.

“All the excitement concerning this horse is both fantastic and somewhat overwhelming at the same time,” Servis said. “Nothing could have prepared me for the atmosphere surrounding [the Triple Crown] races.”

Yet Servis knows how quickly it can end. The railbirds can quickly turn to boo birds.

“The city’s embraced him. The state’s embraced him,” he said. “But the next time I run one up the track [to lose], people will be screaming and hollering at me.”

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