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The Belmont

It's Smarty's party

At Belmont, he's the star, chasing the legacy of Seattle Slew. Also there, with a story, is the man who led Slew to glory.

Published June 4, 2004

[Getty Images: Al Bello]
Smarty Jones displays some of the feistiness that has endeared him to many during a bath early Thursday. Held tightly in check, he did a light gallop around the track.

BELMONT, N.Y. - At 5:30 a.m. Thursday, traffic was still sparse on Hempstead Turnpike and the neighborhood shops and eateries along this small-town, 1950s-like stretch of Long Island had not yet stirred to life.

But inside the old gates of Belmont Park, the world was already bustling beneath a predawn sky that seemed surprisingly light for this hour.

Here in the sprawling maze of stables, the day was well under way, horses getting bathed or loping with their exercise riders for a short workout on the famous mile-and-a-half track that has defined so many legacies.

And two horse tales were in progress: one about possibly making history a day from now, the other about history made at Belmont more than a quarter century ago.

For Smarty Jones, a victory in the 136th running of the Belmont Stakes at 6:38 p.m. Saturday would deliver horse racing's first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. But it also would make Smarty Jones the first unbeaten Triple Crown winner since Seattle Slew set that standard in 1977.

While Smarty and Slew could soon be forever linked, their stories unfolded in distinctly different ways early Thursday morning.

In a near corner of the stable area, the horse du jour, Smarty Jones, commanded center stage with the national media. In a distant nook of the park where he still works, a half-mile from all the hoopla, veteran trainer Billy Turner reminisced about the late, legendary thoroughbred he guided to greatness, Seattle Slew.

The morning began, of course, with the Smarty Party, and a guest list featuring a fast-growing crowd of TV crews, photographers and writers, amassing on the grass just outside of Stable 5.

By 5:40, the media mob had grown to about 40, with everyone waiting to catch a glimpse of the distinguished 3-year-old, still hidden from view in a stall midway down a long walkway.

Finally, just before 6 a.m., two horses ambled out of the rear of the stable, away from the throng. The reporters, having easily doubled in size now, hurried like Smarty paparazzi around the side of the building, followed a dirt horse path, and gathered at an opening to the track to view the star's grand entrance.

From a distance, it was hard to tell which one was Smarty and which was his accompanying "pony horse" Butterscotch. But then someone yelled, "That's the horse!" In moments, the sound of dozens of camera shutters clicking rapid-fire took over as Smarty passed by, a muscular chestnut-colored colt with long, reddish bangs. Head held low and ears up, he seemed fully focused, unmindful of his status as a media darling.

He carried exercise rider Pete van Trump, heavier than your typical jockey to give Smarty a better workout. Trainer John Servis rode astride on Butterscotch, maintaining a firm hold on Smarty with a strap. Following close behind were owners Ray Chapman, in an electric wheelchair due to his ill health, and wife Patricia, their every move captured by TV cameras.

This was, after all, the ultimate prerace photo-op for Smarty, who did a light gallop around the long track with Servis holding him close the entire way, ensuring that Smarty wouldn't break into a full gallop and tax himself in his first workout ever on the Belmont track.

By 6:30, the show was over. Smarty headed back to Stable 5 to get a bath and a well-earned break from the spotlight.

But it was a much different scene at the opposite corner of Belmont Park - past a stable bearing the name of Funny Cide, the colt that fell short of winning the Triple Crown just last year; past the packed stable-hands cafeteria with its jukebox of Willie Nelson and Ricky Martin tunes; past Man O' War Avenue, named for one of the sport's all-time great equines.

All the way to Stable 44. There, trainer Billy Turner, 64, was in the midst of massaging an aching back muscle of one of his fillies. Tall and lean, the man who molded Seattle Slew took time out to reflect on the horse that thrust him into the record books, and on the newcomer that may equal Slew's Triple Crown heights.

Definite parallels exist: the unbeaten mystique (Slew was 9-0 after winning the Belmont, just as Smarty would be with a victory), the extraordinary speed, the feistiness that made each hard to break, the humble, blue-collar racing backgrounds from which they emerged.

"Horses that come up like that become the People's Horse; that's why Slew was so popular, because relatively unknown people in the big time were associated with him," Turner said. "The general public can identify with that."

Turner was 37 when Slew came his way. He was known for keeping a relatively small stable, and still is, allowing him to give added attention to all his horses. "If I had a big stable I wouldn't have gotten Seattle Slew," he said.

The owners didn't think Slew would be a fast-developing 2-year-old, so they sent him to Turner to see what he could do.

What he did was rein in Slew's natural aggressiveness and get him to relax more in his races. The turning point came when the colt ran the fastest mile ever for a 2-year-old in the Champagne Stakes. "I knew right away I had a horse with phenomenal ability and I thought about the Triple Crown right away," Turner said.

Slew didn't disappoint, winning the Triple Crown on June 11, 1977.

"Back then they thought I was the boy wonder. But in the lifetime of Slew - who died at age 28 (two years ago) - I went from boy wonder to old man of the turf."

After the Belmont, Turner wanted Slew to take time off, but he said his owners were insistent upon racing the horse right away. They entered their unbeaten champion in a special California stakes, where he lost. Soon after, Turner was quoted criticizing the decision to race Slew so soon after Belmont. He said that ended his relationship with the owners, who relieved him of his duties as the trainer.

Turner didn't see much more of Slew, whose career mark ended at 14-3. He remembers visiting him several years ago when the aging horse was living on a stud farm in Kentucky. Nine years had passed since their last visit.

"I went in there and was talking to the stud manager, but (Slew) heard my voice. He had been standing in the back of the stall but very slowly walked to the front of the stall and gave a low nicker. It was enough to make you cry."

As for Smarty Jones, Turner said he's excited by the emergence of a worthy challenger to Seattle Slew's mark. He calls Smarty a "running machine" and scoffs at comments that the horse is small for a Triple Crown candidate, noting that Seabiscuit and War Admiral weren't big horses.

"Right now I just don't see anybody pulling a surprise," he said. "The only surprise we could have is if something unusual happens in the race. But this horse just appears to me to be superior to the rest of them."

Especially when it comes to drawing a crowd, no matter how early in the day.

[Last modified June 3, 2004, 22:00:13]


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