Belmont is an elusive jewelThird leg of Triple Crown has tripped up many contenders
By ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun
Here we go again.
For the sixth spring in the past eight, the racing world is aching for a coronation, this time looking to would-be king Smarty Jones to take his spot on the Triple Crown throne.
In fact, giddy with the spectacle of Saturday's crushing 11 1/2-length win in the Preakness Stakes, many are rushing to the conclusion that it is a done deal.
To that we say not so fast.
It is reasonable to conclude that Smarty may be the most serious recent threat to get the job done in three weeks time at the achingly long 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes.
His performance at Pimlico was as thorough as it was thrilling, galloping away from the field under a hand-ride by Toronto-born jockey Stewart Elliott.
Could this year be different than those past failures, finally ending the 26-year drought dating back to Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown winner?
"This is the first time I've been on this Triple Crown road and I can really see why so few horses have been able to do it," trainer John Servis said yesterday in Baltimore after watching Smarty Jones clean up his feed.
"I know I'm really going to appreciate the (three-week break) to the Belmont. I'm really happy with the way he came out of the race. Hopefully we'll be able to go to the Belmont with a loaded gun."
The way his colt finished the Preakness, his ears twitching with excitement, suggested that Servis will have the ammo. As did the attempt by Smarty Jones to hoof his trainer yesterday during the colt's morning bath.
Loaded gun or not, odd things have been known to happen at the Belmont. In 2002, War Emblem's Crown bid ended when he stumbled out of the gate and finished eighth.
A year ago, the rain that turned the track into a quagmire didn't help Funny Cide as he went down to Empire Maker. And in 1997, Silver Charm, perhaps the most deserving of the recent candidates, was caught at the wire by Touch Gold, a horse he couldn't see charging on the outside.
It's starting to look as though none of those near-miss horses could look through Smarty Jones' bridle, however.
If the pride of Philadelphia Park seems invincible, it's because he has been just that. A perfect 8-for-8, he won the Kentucky Derby by 2 3/4 lengths over Lion Heart and it was six more lengths back to the next-closest runner.
In terms of racing style, his versatility and ability to switch gears at will have allowed Smarty Jones to toy with his foes.
He has been so dominant that racing people are even mentioning the "S" word, referencing the phenom who manhandled the competition en route to the 1973 Crown.
"Smarty really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away," said jockey Gary Stevens, who rode Preakness runner-up Rock Hard Ten. "That horse is as good a horse as any I've ever seen."
Rock Hard Ten is expected to take a crack at Smarty Jones in the Belmont, as is Preakness third-place finisher Eddington. New York Racing Association officials said yesterday that a handful of others are pointing to the race, making sure that should Smarty claim the elusive prize and the $5-million US bonus, it will be well-earned.
"It's always good to have (a Triple Crown prospect)," Eddington's trainer, Mark Hennig said. "But it's one we intend to make sure doesn't happen."
For now, we best wait for June 5 to arrive and let Smarty issue the verdict himself. Will he take your breath away like big Big Red did with his 31-length win in the '73 Belmont? Or will he make you groan in the disappointment of failure?