US-hay!

Jun 1, 2004 12:57 AM

Smarty Jones is the embodiment of the American Dream.

Born in a state known for its rich history and not for its breeding of classic race horses, and raised in a city famous for its cheese steaks, soft pretzels and professional sports teams that crash and burn in big games, Smarty Jones has broken those negative shackles. He stands on the threshold of immortality.

All he has to do is win the Belmont Stakes Saturday to become the second undefeated horse to capture the Triple Crown since Seattle Slew in 1977, the 12th overall and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

Smarty Jones has taken the country by storm. He won the Kentucky Derby by 2 3/4 lengths on a sloppy track, causing his detractors to gag on their imperceptive prognostications. He won the Preakness by a record 11 ½ lengths, convincing remaining skeptics that he may, indeed, be as authentic as the storied Secretariat, who won the Belmont by an astonishing 31 lengths in 1973 to sweep the Triple Crown.

Unbeaten in eight starts, each at different distances, Smarty Jones has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, draws fan mail from around the world, and attracts crowds of 10,000 when he gallops in morning exercises at his home base, Philadelphia Park. ESPN has added 5 ½ hours of Belmont coverage, thanks to Smarty Jones. A meeting with the President could be in the offing if he wins the Triple Crown. In short, Smarty Jones is the rage of the electronic age.

It’s not just because Smarty Jones has a catchy name, or because he’s a blue-collar horse with blue-collar connections. His 78-year-old owner, Roy Chapman, is wheel-chair bound and impaired by emphysema; his 45-year-old trainer, John Servis, who has paid his dues working beneath the big-time radar, deservedly is experiencing the thrills of a once in a lifetime horse; and his 39-year-old jockey, Stewart Elliott, is showing peers that he rides masterfully despite having plied his trade at the game’s lower echelon, until he gained international recognition by winning the Derby and the Preakness.

Smarty Jones is America’s horse because he won the world’s most famous race as an underdog, despite being the 4-1 betting choice. He is America’s horse because his owner, trainer and jockey have made themselves available to an insatiable media, responding to its zealous demands openly and candidly.

Such is not always the case.

In February of 2000, Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale was approached by the fledgling Television Games Network to do a documentary on Fusaichi Pegasus in his pursuit of the Triple Crown.

The film would show the colt through his preparatory races leading to the Kentucky Derby and beyond. Drysdale, as is his wont, politely declined, citing possible disruption of his rigid training regimen. In late April that year at Churchill Downs, where Fusaichi Pegasus ultimately would win the Derby, each morning Drysdale would reluctantly field questions from the media in a standard pre-Derby routine mandated by Churchill Downs. But Drysdale emphasized, "no touchy-feely" questions. Inquisitors were advised to ask only about the horse and his training, and not how Drysdale’s limited emotional range might be affected by winning racing’s grandest prize.

I once wrote that if Drysdale had his druthers, he would train in a vacuum. As it turned out, TVG would have provided Neil with a nice memento for posterity. C’est la vie.

Drysdale is not alone. There are other horsemen of a similar modus operandi. The morning after a stakes race in which Bobby Frankel trained the beaten favorite, I asked how the filly came out of the race. "None of your business," he told me. Hey, it’s a free country.

Fortunately, the vast majority of owners, trainers and jockeys are as straightforward and as pleasant with the media as they can be in an industry that is perceived as clandestine, at times justifiably so.

Not so with Team Smarty Jones. It’s their sincerity and impartiality that makes them so refreshing.

That’s why they’re the people’s choice.

"I think they’re incredible for the game," said Doug O’Neill, currently challenging Mike Mitchell for the Hollywood Park training lead. "It just goes to show you don’t need to buy a million dollar yearling to have an undefeated horse going for the Triple Crown. I think it’s absolutely awesome."

O’Neill was even more delighted with Servis and how imperviously he’s traveled the challenging Triple Crown trail.

"He’s a good representative for us trainers," O’Neill said. "He’s a hard-working guy, a classy guy and he’s not full of himself. He’s the first one to say how amazing the horse is. It’s nice to see a new name and a new face with that caliber of horse. He’s the type of horse we’re all looking for, that’s for sure."

Fortunately, fate saw to it that Team Smarty Jones got the horse it deserved.

The homestretch:

With a small field likely and the lack of a serious speed horse in the Belmont, Smarty Jones should be able to take command at will, set leisurely fractions and win as Elliott pleases. He had Lion Heart as his rabbit in the Derby and Preakness, but there are no such speedballs in this Belmont, leaving Elliott to his own devices.

Smarty Jones should go to the front and improve his position, winning by daylight, barring the unforeseen. But former jockey Corey Black, currently the agent for Pat Valenzuela, who will ride Rock Hard Ten if he gets an injunction to clear him from a 30-day suspension scheduled to begin on Wednesday, cautions that his horse has speed if he chooses to use it, especially with the addition of blinkers.

"And with Pat riding, he won’t be very far back," Black said.

Valenzuela, a native of Montrose, Colorado, took off at Hollywood Park Friday and Saturday to attend the high school graduation of his daughter in Durango.