- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

BALTIMORE.

I doubt that a horse knows when it has a second chance — that an animal has any concept about what we call a new lease on life.

But Smarty Jones races like he knows he has been playing with house money since he almost died nearly a year ago.

The Philadelphia phenom won the 129th Preakness Stakes yesterday at Pimlico Race Course by a record 11 lengths, and he would have won by more if the race had been longer. That means that the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, is his race to lose. And Smarty Jones, a horse who nearly lost his life when he crushed his skull after smashing into starting gate iron bar, doesn’t lose.

He’s 8-for-8 now, and in the longer race at Belmont — with no great horse waiting there — Smarty Jones looks like the real deal to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

There have been nine pretenders since — horses that won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to lose in the Belmont. The last was Funny Cide in 2003.

Smarty Jones is no pretender. He is a survivor.

He maintains a calm confidence when not racing. With a record crowd of 112,668 screaming and surrounding him in the pre-race walk yesterday at Pimlico, Smarty Jones waltzed around “as if he was going around the shed row,” said his trainer, John Servis. Then he ran as if losing would be unthinkable.

“He wasn’t even blowing that hard after the race,” said jockey Stewart Elliott. “I think he will do whatever I want him to. He is push-button now.”

Smarty Jones won on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs. He won on a fast track at Pimlico. He has beaten good horses along the way: The Cliff’s Edge at the Kentucky Derby, Rock Hard Ten yesterday at the Preakness, and Imperialism and Lion Heart twice.

Yesterday he was behind until the final turn, but there was little doubt that Smarty Jones would overtake Lion Heart. It was just a matter of when and by how much. With his record winning margin, there is the possibility that he could put away the field at the Belmont — about a third longer than the Preakness — in Secretariat-like fashion.

OK, maybe I’m getting a little carried away. Thirty-one lengths is a bit much to ask of any horse, and there was only one Secretariat. He is at the head of the class. But I wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines.

“Smarty really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away,” said jockey Gary Stevens, who rode second-place finisher Rock Hard Ten. Smarty Jones is on the verge of joining a historic class, waiting to take his place as the 12th Triple Crown winner. “I think we are seeing history.”

It is the Secretariat-like characteristics and the awe that competing jockeys have for Smarty Jones that sets this horse apart from the five most recent Derby and Preakness winners who were exposed at the Belmont.

“Smarty Jones is just a great horse,” said Mike Smith, who rode Lion Heart. “I told Gary [Stevens], ‘I think we just picked the wrong year.’”

It may be the wrong year for the other jockeys but it is the right year for Maryland racing. Smarty Jones’ popularity will be a shot in the arm for thoroughbred racing and the success he has should have an influence in the politics of this sport — and this state.

Smarty Jones is the biggest thing in Pennsylvania right now, at least from Philadelphia to the state capital in Harrisburg. They want to hold a parade for the horse on Philadelphia’s Broad Street. The governor wants him to come to the state capital. Servis got a huge ovation when he attended a Philadelphia Flyers playoff game last week.

All this popularity may be enough to push Pennsylvania legislators to give their approval to slot machines at tracks. If slots come to Pennsylvania, it would mean Maryland would be bordered by three states that have legalized slots at race tracks — Delaware, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. That kind of pressure can only help slots supporters in Maryland.

Smarty Jones will now become the symbol of salvation for the horse racing industry. “This great ride continues for our game,” said National Thoroughbred Racing Association Commissioner Tim Smith. “The level of interest in Smarty Jones and his story, even before today, was huge.”

So now is the level of money at stake, from the issue of slots to the $5million bonus Smarty Jones owners Roy and Patricia Chapman stand to receive from Visa if the horse wins the Triple Crown. Coupled with the $5million they got for winning both the Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby, that would put Smarty Jones’ earnings at about $13.5million — about $3.6million more than the current all-time leading earner, Cigar.

When you’re playing with house money, though, it’s just another day at the track.

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