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Smarty Jones is racing’s hero
despite defeat

Jun 8, 2004 1:17 AM

Three days later, it still smarts. Get used to it. It will always smart. To come that close and lose. But Smarty Jones lost nothing in defeat.

In racing lore, he will always be remembered as the rags-to-riches thoroughbred from blue-collar Philadelphia Park who came within a closer-than-it-looked one length of becoming the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown. But he weakened late over the demanding mile and a half of the 136th Belmont Stakes and fell to 36-1 longshot Birdstone, a horse whose name will go down in infamy, because he prevented the Smarty Jones story from having the fairytale ending the whole world wanted.

Instead of an eagerly anticipated coronation, the first since 1978 when Affirmed swept the Triple Crown, the Belmont played out as a cruel coup, because in a span of five weeks, Smarty Jones had become America’s horse. He raised the country’s consciousness of racing to unparalleled levels. And for that, Smarty Jones, who was both an underdog and the favorite in the Belmont, won everyone’s heart.

All the king’s horses and all the NTRA’s men couldn’t buy the kind of publicity Smarty Jones generated for racing.

When Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Triple Crown fever became epidemic, so much so that after Birdstone’s unpopular Belmont win, congratulations to his connections were perfunctory at best. Edgar Prado, who rode Birdstone, apologized for winning, for crying out loud.

"I’m very sorry I had to do this," the jockey said. "But that’s my job. It’s what I get paid to do." And there are those who say racing is fixed.

See, everybody wanted Smarty Jones to win. Team Smarty Jones had no detractors, perhaps unprecedented in the acutely competitive game of horse racing. Nick Zito, who trains Birdstone, is not known as an ambassador of ebullience. But even he seemed unusually subdued during post-race ceremonies. Fans at Belmont Park booed New York Gov. George Pataki when he was introduced to present the Belmont trophy to Zito’s people. There were tears in Philly. There were tears in New York. There were tears throughout the country.

But a victory by Smarty Jones just wasn’t meant to be. He didn’t lose because of a poor ride by Stewart Elliott, or misjudgement in training by John Servis, or something as incidental as a misplaced safety pin. The most likely reason: his pedigree caught up with him. Like Elliott said in explaining the defeat, "it was the mile and a half."

After all, Smarty Jones ran essentially the same race he ran in winning the 11/4-mile Derby and the 13/16-mile Preakness. But the Belmont’s last eighth of a mile was his undoing.

There was disappointment in announcer Tom Durkin’s voice when he recognized in deep stretch that Smarty Jones was beaten. He, too, was crestfallen.

"It hurt," Servis said of the defeat, "but we’re not going to put our heads down. We’re proud." And well they should be, even though Philadelphians have learned to accept disappointing performances from their sports heroes. The Phillies surrendering a 6½ game lead with 12 to play to blow the National League East pennant in 1964 is the most infamous fall from grace that the City of Brotherly Love bitterly endures.

So move over, Gene Mauch, and make room for Smarty Jones, who despite suffering his first defeat will leave posterity a rich and cherished memory.

But there is no joy in Jonesville. Mighty Smarty has struck out.

The homestretch

Trainer Bill Spawr says the Smarty Jones impact won’t vanish any time soon.

"I don’t think the interest will wear off quickly," Spawr said. "He’s a national hero and it’s exciting. The fact that people were lined up in the streets when he left the barn area in Philadelphia (for Belmont Park) speaks volumes. It was like a Presidential motorcade with people clapping and yelling. I don’t know if I ever saw anything like that before for a race horse.

"He’s an underdog, too," Spawr continued. "He’s not in a high-profile barn, he’s not owned by high-profile people, he doesn’t have a royal pedigree and few people ever heard of his rider before the Derby. They’re all low profile, they’re all underdogs and everybody roots for the underdog. Servis never changed the horse’s program and that was a major reason he ran so well. Someone else might have gotten a name rider for the Derby and probably changed the horse’s work program. Another trainer might have worked him harder, more often and faster, figuring he was going to go a mile and a half. But they continued to do the same thing that got him there."

...Was that a doctored picture of Smarty Jones on the cover of the June 7 edition of ESPN The Magazine? He had crocodile teeth. I never saw a horse with incisors like that . . . Lookalikes: Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince and a young Richard Pryor.