- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

BALTIMORE — The comparisons already have begun: Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Seabiscuit.

Smarty Jones enters the 136th Belmont Stakes on June5 with a chance to become the first Triple Crown champion in 26 years and add his name to the roll of the greatest horses in racing history.

The undefeated colt won the Preakness Stakes on Saturday by a record 11 lengths, proving his Kentucky Derby victory on a muddy track was no fluke and leaving the trainers of his rivals gushing praise.

“I got chills watching Smarty Jones,” said Marty Ciresa, the trainer of Little Matth Man. “Here I have a horse in the race and I’m watching Smarty Jones, saying, ‘I’ve never seen a horse that good.’”

A loss typically is followed by a litany of excuses — track conditions, traffic problems, etc. — but on Saturday Smarty Jones’ opponents simply bowed to a better horse.

“Smarty really reminded me of Secretariat,” said jockey Gary Stevens, who rode second-place finisher Rock Hard Ten.

Said Lion Heart jockey Mike Smith: “Smarty Jones was just amazing.”

Smarty Jones has become a national sensation.

The colt’s victory in the Preakness produced the highest television ratings for the event since 1990, with an overnight number of 7.2. A record 112,668 were at Pimlico Race Course, and the 120,000 expected to attend the Belmont easily would eclipse the event’s attendance mark.

John Servis, Smarty Jones’ trainer, said the reaction around Philadelphia Park was overwhelming after his horse won the Derby. News stations used helicopters to track the return of the colt to the park. Sports Illustrated put the horse on its cover, the first time racing has been so treated since 1983.

NBC’s “Weekend Today” interviewed Servis at the Preakness barn yesterday. Keychains, glasses and more than 5,000 shirts were sold out by late Saturday when Philadelphia Park was packed with Smarty Jones revelers. More than 100 reporters and photographers from Philadelphia covered the Preakness, up from just two in recent years. Smarty Jones’ return to Philadelphia again was tracked by TV helicopters.

But that seems likely to be just the start.

In five of the seven previous years, horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to fail in the Belmont. But those thoroughbreds haven’t generated quite the buzz of Smarty Jones, who counts among his distant ancestors the great Secretariat, 1964 Kentucky Derby winner Northern Dancer and 1968 English Derby winner Sir Ivor.

Smarty Jones, 8-0, is only the third undefeated horse to win the Derby and the Preakness, giving him a legitimacy that the recent Triple Crown challengers lacked.

Smarty Jones will train at home for 10 days then for 10 days at Belmont, where the attention will escalate to levels not seen since Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978. A victory in the Belmont would make Smarty Jones just the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown. He also would claim a $5million bonus and become racing’s richest horse.

Servis said he only now understands how tough a challenge the Triple Crown is.

“This is the first time I’ve been on the road, and I realize now why there has only been a handful of horses to win the Triple Crown,” he said. “It’s a very grueling road, and we’ve been on it since January. But I’ve got a good horse, and he’s doing real well.”

Best yet, there don’t appear to be any serious rivals awaiting Smarty Jones at the Belmont. The 3-year-old crop was considered thin before the Derby, and Smarty Jones has scared away most of the top talent.

The Belmont could draw six or more challengers. Preakness runner-up Rock Hard Ten and third-place finisher Eddington likely will compete. The Cliff’s Edge, who was withdrawn from the Preakness because of a hoof abscess, might be entered.

Nine horses that did not run in the Preakness are being considered for the Belmont, including four from the Derby. Maryland’s Tapit, who finished ninth in the Derby, may be the most formidable. Royal Assault is coming off a solid Sir Barton Stakes win at Pimlico on Saturday. Birdstone, Friends Lake, Master David, Mustanfar, Read the Footnotes and Relaxed Gesture also are being considered.

The 1-mile run at the Belmont is known as the “Test of Champions.” Many Triple Crown pretenders have come to the longest stakes race in the United States and failed to survive the test.

Smarty Jones’ jockey, Stewart Elliott, said he doesn’t foresee problems racing the longer distance, especially since he didn’t need to urge his horse on over the last eighth-mile of the Preakness.

“He handled the race very easily, galloped out strong and he wasn’t even really blowing that hard after the race,” Elliott said. “It didn’t seem like it took much out of him at all. He just has so much ability, and now he’s learned to relax. He’s push-button now.”

Indeed, Servis doesn’t even think Smarty Jones has peaked.

“I think there’s some room for improvement,” Servis said. “He’s really matured and learned how to race. He has that tactical speed. He has the ability to go to the next gear.”

The next gear would be immortality.

cThe Associated Press contributed to this report.

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