Capturing the Triple Crown at Saturday's Belmont Stakes would thrust Smarty Jones into horse racing's elite.
By BRIAN LANDMAN
Published June 1, 2004
Graphic: Smarty Jones vs. recent Triple Crown winners in the Preakness Click to enlarge.
If Smarty Jones were to win the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, he would join the most exclusive, prestigious fraternity in thoroughbred racing; he would become a Triple Crown winner, the first in 26 years.
But would he truly belong in the company of the 11 other legendary 3-year-olds to have captured the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and the Belmont?
He has, at first and even second glance, less than regal bloodlines.
He began his career at Philadelphia Park - about as far removed from racing's hallowed grounds, such as Saratoga or Santa Anita, as you can get.
He has lacked a noble, accomplished rival pushing him every step of the way, pushing him to scintillating times.
Yet the connections of the most recent Triple Crown winners - Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) - all unequivocably would welcome Smarty Jones to their club.
"Why would a horse that has won eight straight be unworthy? That's what I don't understand," said Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat, recognized as the greatest horse of his generation and perhaps ever. "If he wins the Belmont and wins with style, he deserves to be named with any horse we've had."
Or Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation.
Historical note: A win Saturday would actually make Smarty 9-for-9, which would make him only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner and first since Slew capped his run to glory, a perfect 9-for-9.
"Being undefeated adds that extra pizzazz," said Mickey Taylor, who along with wife Karen owned Slew. "If he can make it once around Belmont Park and end at the finish line in front, he's a very, very special horse."
In fact, Chenery, the Taylors, Affirmed owner Patrice Wolfson, as well as their Triple Crown-winning jockeys - Ron Turcotte, Jean Cruget and Steve Cauthen - see more similarities than differences between their immortal colts and Smarty Jones.
Seattle Slew and Affirmed both had the ability to bolt to the lead (or just off the pacesetter) and carry that speed the distance. Secretariat could do that, too, although Turcotte usually brought him to the winner's circle from farther back.
That's Smarty Jones.
Historical note: Secretariat, Slew and Affirmed led at every call in the grueling 11/2-mile Belmont. Secretariat ran a world-record time of 2:24, romping to a 31-length victory. Affirmed owns the sixth-fastest Belmont time - 2:26 4/5.
(Slew's Belmont time was nearly three seconds slower than Affirmed's, but torrential rain - Mickey Taylor's most vivid memory of the day - turned the track muddy and Slew hadn't worked over that track in that kind of condition before.)
"After the Arkansas Derby, I was thinking if there were a horse I'd want to ride it would be Smarty Jones and the reason was because he has natural speed," said Cauthen, an 18-year-old wunderkind when he helped will Affirmed to three hard-fought wins against Alydar.
"The thing I notice about Smarty Jones is that he's a high-energy horse; he seems to love racing and loves to run," Chenery said. "He's engaged in racing. If you watch his ears, (you can tell) he's having a ball.
"He reminded me very much of Affirmed pricking his ears all the way down the stretch. The only thing was when Affirmed was doing it, Alydar was breathing down his neck."
Affirmed and Cauthen held on by a neck.
Smarty Jones won the Preakness by 111/2 lengths.
"I really believe we haven't seen the best of him," said Turcotte, who won the Derby and Belmont in 1972 aboard Riva Ridge before winning the Triple Crown. "The horse seems to be getting better and better all the time. ... If he's right, I look for him just to gallop. I've made a statement that he's 25 lengths better than the other 3-year-olds and if he wanted to, he'd probably win by 25 lengths."
That wasn't meant to compare him to Secretariat.
But there are some comparisons you can make, beginning with heredity. Secretariat is a distant relative on Smarty's sire's side.
"I think that's a tremendous advantage," Chenery said, laughing.
She also sees the same kind of intelligence and desire in Smarty Jones that she saw in her horse. And both have come along at time of a nation's war weariness.
"It's a time when we want to feel good about something and we can't particularly feel good about what's going on in our country and our foreign policy now," Chenery said. "Smarty Jones is very appealing and easy to love and so are his connections. The time in which this is occurring makes him even more attractive, and I felt that way about Secretariat. The country needed him."
She will be at Belmont to pull for Smarty, as will Turcotte, confined to a wheelchair since a spill in 1978 left him paralyzed, and Wolfson. The others will be there in spirit.
"I wish him the best," Mickey Taylor said, "and I'm sure Slew is looking down from horse heaven saying, "Good luck, Smarty.' "