Birdstone passes Smarty Jones in the stretch to take the Belmont and prevent a Triple Crown winner.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published June 6, 2004
[Photo: Getty images, Al Bello]
Birdstone, left, overtakes Smarty Jones inside the 16th pole to take the lead in the stretch. His win made Smarty the 18th horse to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but fall short of the Triple Crown.
BELMONT, N.Y. - In the end, there was no joy in Jonesville.
Beneath a fittingly gray and dreary sky, Smarty Jones struck out in his much-hyped third shot at horse racing history, as unheralded Birdstone caught and passed the previously unbeaten favorite about 100 yards from the finish line to score a dramatic upset in the 136th Belmont Stakes.
Finally, somebody managed to get Smarty.
The horse that finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby began its charge with jockey Edgar Prado at the top of the homestretch, with Smarty Jones holding what looked like a commanding 4-length lead.
But chances of Smarty becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years suddenly began to fade.
Birdstone, a 36-1 shot, and Prado made their move on the outside as a visibly stunned record crowd of 120,139, hoping to witness Triple Crown history, watched Smarty lose by a length.
It was Prado's second Belmont Stakes win. The last came in 2002 under similar circumstances. He triumphed with Sarava, the biggest long shot in Belmont history, and helped spoil War Emblem's bid to win the Triple Crown.
Moments after Saturday's race, Prado expressed more remorse than happiness.
"I'm very sorry it happened," he said of his win, conveying those sentiments to losing jockey Stewart Elliott as well soon after the race.
Birdstone trainer Nick Zito, who went into the Belmont with five second-place finishes in 11 attempts, even seemed to have trouble expressing enthusiasm at first.
"What can I say?" he said. "It was one emotional thing. It's sad because Smarty is great for racing."
Zito, whose horse did not run in the Preakness three weeks ago, received a visit during a postrace network television interview from Smarty Jones trainer John Servis.
"He is a class guy," Zito said. "He did a great job. Smarty Jones will always be one of the most famous horses."
For the record, Birdstone's time was 2:27.50, and he paid $74, $14 and $8.60. Smarty Jones paid $3.30 and $2.60, and third-place finisher Royal Assault paid $6.10.
But the numbers that seemed to linger just as much were these: Since 1997, six horses have made it to the verge of winning the Triple Crown, after wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to be foiled on Belmont's grueling mile-and-a-half oval. The last Triple Crown champ remains 1978's Affirmed.
Even though Smarty Jones took an early lead just past the clubhouse turn and kept the lead down the backstretch, Servis said he had a bad feeling. He could tell his horse was pushing too hard, seeming to drag Elliott more than relaxing in the lead, as he did in wins in the Derby and Preakness.
"I was a little concerned," Servis said. "He didn't look like he settled as well as he had in his previous races. I wasn't feeling good down the backside. I was really concerned."
Servis said he was concerned during the past few weeks about Smarty's demeanor.
"The one thing that I was worried about since the Preakness was him being too sharp," he said. "I couldn't get him to settle down."
Still, Servis tried his best to stay upbeat.
"It was tough," he said. "We had a shot to make history, and we didn't do it, but we've had a great year. I'm not going to put my head down. We accomplished a lot, and my main goal was winning the Kentucky Derby. I'm really proud with what we've got done."
Purge took the early lead, followed by Rock Hard Ten and Smarty Jones, but down the backstretch, Elliott appeared to most spectators to be taking command. Birdstone didn't even seem to be a factor as Smarty led the pack heading out of the final turn. Smarty was a minute from victory, as the massive crowd roared wildly.
But at the top of the final stretch, Prado made his move with Birdstone on the outside. Moments later, it was clear that Smarty seemed winded. Elliott simply couldn't fend off the challenge in a heart-pounding finish.
Just like that, the monthlong Smarty Party was over. Another horse had kept up with Jones, and passed him.
"I saw him coming," Elliott said. "My horse saw him. We just couldn't hold him off.
"I figured if I could get into the back side and get a clear lead, then he'd relax. He just never got a break. In the end, the mile and a half just got to him. That's horse racing."
The loss was particularly painful for owners Roy and Patricia Chapman, the Philadelphians whose horse had become the recent pride of the title-starved city.
"We are disappointed," Patricia Chapman said. "The better horse won today. I'm glad it's over, but I'm disappointed for the fans and for us, too."