- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

BALTIMORE. — Well, after you’ve picked a Kentucky Derby where not one single horse you had in the trifecta finished in the money, you learned your lesson: don’t bet against the horse that has never lost. So for today’s Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, sign me up in the Smarty Jones army, followed by Imperialism and Lion Heart in the trifecta.

Smarty Jones has won all seven of his races, becoming the first undefeated horse to run in the Preakness since Seattle Slew in 1977. With all the drama that surrounds Smarty’s story, it sometimes gets lost he may be the best 3-year-old there is. He will have a chance to put an exclamation point on that notion when he wins today and then travels to Belmont Park in New York three weeks later to try and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

There has been some skepticism about the quality of Smarty Jones’ competition along the way — the same questions that face another Jones competing tonight in Las Vegas, where light heavyweight champion Roy goes up against Antonio Tarver in a rematch — but all the Joneses can do is beat whoever is put up against them.

In Smarty’s case, it’s a lot harder because even if he is competing against stiffs, they are fields full of stiffs. In a horse race, where anything can happen, sometimes even the stiffs win.

He didn’t run against a field full of stiffs two weeks ago at Churchill Downs, unless you count that useless, beer-guzzling Tapit, who I picked in the Derby and who wound up finishing ninth. The gutless owners of the pride of Maryland begged out of the state’s prize racing event and instead will run Tapit in the Belmont. I hope he passes out loaded before he reaches the finish line.

What do you do for rehab on a horse that trains on Guinness stout? Does he go through a 24-step program?

Lion Heart, Imperialism, The Cliff’s Edge — these were all quality horses Smarty Jones outran in Louisville. But because the track was sloppy after a downpour, questions remain. The track favored speed horses like Smarty and held back those that finish strong like Imperialism. And in the shorter race today, will Smarty Jones have enough distance left to overtake Lion Heart like he did in the Derby?

But no race is the same. There are all sorts of different circumstances and conditions. Shoes fall off horses like the front two did for The Cliff’s Edge in the Derby, and they develop abscesses like the one that will keep The Cliff’s Edge out of today’s race, eliminating one of Smarty Jones’ potentially toughest competitors. And speaking of sloppy tracks, the weather reports yesterday mentioned increasing chances for storms for today’s race.

Things happen, but when you win seven out of seven like Smarty Jones has, it shows the horse doesn’t like to lose and finds a way to win in all kinds of situations.

“For anyone to beat him, they will really have to run,” said Smarty Jones’ trainer, John Servis. “He has run hard all year long. And I expect the same [today] because he has shown me the one thing only great horses have, and that’s heart.”

It’s funny. That is what they used to say about another undefeated competitor: heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano. Some criticized the quality of his opponents, but old-timers who know boxing and who saw Marciano fight don’t buy into the notion he was overrated. They recognized that when your No.1 attribute is heart, you can’t be overrated, because that’s a factor nobody can measure.

The Marciano comparison actually came up at Pimlico this week. “Every professional athlete in history that I know has been beaten except Rocky Marciano,” Steve Taub, Imperialism’s owner, told reporters. “Secretariat lost. Man o’ War lost. Seattle Slew lost.”

No one expects Smarty Jones to go on winning for the rest of his career — just his next two races.

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