Monday, May 31, 2004

Smarty Jones might be a heavy favorite in Saturday’s 136th Belmont Stakes, but historically he remains a long shot.

All nine Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winners since 1979 have failed to become the 12th Triple Crown champion after losing the Belmont, including five since 1997. There have been bad rides and photo-finish losses, stumbled starts and stretch injuries. Spectacular Bid even stepped on a safety pin that fell from his ankle bandages, undermining his attempt.

Still, about 125,000 fans will come to Belmont Park expecting the first sweep since Affirmed in 1978. Racing’s longest Triple Crown drought will end if Smarty Jones manages a realistic early pace, doesn’t get too anxious at the top of the stretch and fends off his late challengers.

Winning the Triple Crown requires greatness, and no horse has claimed that in more than two decades. Jockey Kent Desormeaux discovered how agonizingly long the Belmont stretch can last. Real Quiet was caught in the final yards and lost by a nose in 1998, thwarting his Triple Crown bid.

“The toughest part is realizing you’re carrying the world of racing on your shoulder,” Desormeaux said. “It feels like being president for three weeks.”

Trainer Bob Baffert lost the Triple Crown in successive years when Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet both suffered narrow Belmont losses and again in 2002 when War Emblem stumbled leaving the starting gate. Forget the lost $5million bonus for the sweep — the cruel ending to the five-week tour is devastating.

“Next time I win the Derby, I’m heading home,” Baffert said jokingly after the third loss. “I wanted to [win the Triple Crown], but it’s tough.”

Tough? Try entering the race knowing your horse probably has little chance despite being a heavy 3-10 favorite. Trainer Bud Delp arrived at the barn hours before the race to discover Spectacular Bid lame in his stall. The colt nuzzled a safety pin loose from his bandages and stepped on it. Jockey Ronnie Franklin’s poor ride didn’t help as Spectacular Bid finished third to join Man o’ War as the greatest horses not to win all three.

“The only two horses that would have given him a run when he was at his best were Citation and Secretariat,” Delp said. “I’ve watched Affirmed and Seattle Slew run. Bid is the best horse I’ve been around.”

Of course, it’s not always a sad ending. Sometimes greatness is delivered through runaway victories or stirring stretch battles. Few horses sneak into the winner’s circle.

“The Triple Crown is not meant to be easy,” Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte said.

That’s easy for him to say given Secretariat’s 31-length Belmont victory, considered the greatest Triple Crown run ever. Turcotte was so far ahead that he looked at the infield teletimer to see the horse’s victory was in record time. Seattle Slew’s Belmont time that capped his 1977 sweep was the second fastest, but he still would have been 10 lengths behind Secretariat.

“I didn’t hear the clippety-clop of the other horses,” Turcotte said, “and I just couldn’t believe it.”

Jockey Johnny Longden knew the sound of silence. Count Fleet only faced two rivals in the 1943 Belmont as the 1-20 favorite, but he dusted them by 25 lengths. He actually increased his lead by five lengths in the stretch as the other two horses dueled for second.

Amazingly, Count Fleet wrenched his left foreleg during the race and never ran again.

“I felt him bobble in the stretch and knew he had hurt himself,” Longden later told the Blood-Horse. “I started to pull him up, but he’d have none of it. He just grabbed the bit in that bull-headed way of his and took off again.”

The first time Secretariat galloped over a racetrack, the clocker put down his binoculars and said the chestnut reminded him of Citation. It was an uncanny comparison. Citation still has backers who claim the 1948 Triple Crown champion was the greatest.

“Almost every nice horse has one good move in him,” jockey Eddie Arcaro told the Blood-Horse. “The really good ones you can move with them twice. With Citation, you could call on him any time in a race. He had about eight moves in him.”

Citation needed just one in the Derby and Preakness to pull away. He was never challenged in the Belmont, leading every step of the eight-length victory.

Now, Smarty Jones must prove worthy of joining the immortals. In a recent conference call with the owners and jockeys of Secretariat, Affirmed and Seattle Slew, none doubted Smarty Jones would win the Belmont. Turcotte even forecasted a 25-length victory. The horse, a fourth-generation descendent of Secretariat, seems unbeatable.

“Why would a horse that has won eight straight be [considered] unworthy?” Secretariat owner Helen “Penny” Chenery said. “He’s a high-energy horse that loves to run and has lots to give. I don’t think we’ve seen the bottom of him. Watch his ears — he’s having a ball.”

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