Not me!

Jun 15, 2004 4:18 AM

Jerry Bailey and Alex Solis have taken heat for the defeat of Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes, which prevented the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner from becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

After Smarty Jones weakened in deep stretch of the mile and a half Belmont to lose by a length to 36-1 outsider Birdstone, John Servis, who trains Smarty Jones, said that Bailey and Solis illogically pushed their respective horses, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, early in the race, compromising their horses’ chances and the chances of Smarty Jones. Eddington finished fourth, beaten 12 lengths, while Rock Hard Ten finished fifth, some 26 lengths behind Birdstone, Smarty Jones and third-place Royal Assault.

"Those guys had nothing to lose, so they sacrificed their horses to push Smarty Along," Servis was quoted as saying a day after the Belmont.

But don’t blame Bailey, because he wasn’t buying that when I contacted him via phone in the Belmont jocks’ room last week.

"I think that comment is reaching for something pretty thin," Bailey said. "Let me tell you this. If the horse is 1-9 and he goes the first half in :48 and 3/5 (:48.60) on a track where a record was just set (by Bear Fan, who won the 6 ½-furlong Vagrancy Handicap in 1:14 2/5), so his time probably was :49 3/5, you’re supposed to be on his ass. To say that I rode a race just to beat him, well if I did that, or Alex did that, we’d have gone after him in the first turn and tried to carry him wide or what have you. That wasn’t the case.

"If you look at the numbers — just take the Beyer numbers, don’t even go by the Rags (Ragozin Sheets) or the Thorograph—they were way lower for Smarty Jones than his Preakness or Derby. He just didn’t run the same kind of race, primarily because those two (races) took their toll on him.

"I certainly didn’t ride just to get him beat at all. I don’t think Alex did. If John Servis feels like that, I’m sorry he feels like that, but that’s not the case."

Bailey was on the same page with the rest of racing world in evaluating the contribution Smarty Jones made to racing during the Triple Crown run.

"I think he’s great for the sport," Bailey said. "The (television) ratings probably are a great indicator of how much he meant to us." The Belmont had the highest ratings of any sports program this year since the Super Bowl, with nearly 33 million viewers.

As to whether this could be the last year of riding for Bailey, who turns 47 on Aug. 29, the Hall of Fame jockey has the issue on hold.

"I’ve said the last few years that at the end of each year I’ll think about it, make an assessment and decide if I’ll ride next year and this year is no different," Bailey said. "I feel fine and at the end of the year I’ll sit down and think about it and make a decision."

Meanwhile, Bailey’s agent, Las Vegas native Ron Anderson, is as enamored with the Smarty Jones story as everyone else.

"It’s a great story of a little guy making good," Anderson said. "It’s a ”˜Rocky’ story. It didn’t involve a blue blood owner or breeder or trainer. I really don’t know John (Servis) all that well except for a few conversations on the phone, because he doesn’t run all that much in New York. He’s a nice guy, a very classy guy and I like him."

Anderson also had high praise for Stewart Elliott, Smarty Jones’ 39-year-old rider who became an "overnight sensation" after years toiling on minor circuits and dealing with alcohol abuse.

"He’s a good rider," Anderson said. "Just because a jockey doesn’t ride on an ”˜A’ circuit doesn’t mean he’s not a good rider. Elliott has done remarkably well everywhere he’s ridden. Just because it hasn’t been in New York or California or Kentucky doesn’t detract from his ability. I’ve watched him a few times at Monmouth and I’ve watched him sparingly at Philadelphia Park, and he’s a very, very good rider."

The homestretch

Back to normal: Three days after Smarty Jones had turned the racing world upside down in his vain pursuit of the Triple Crown, on eight pages of Tuesday’s world-class Los Angeles Times sports section, there were stories on baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis, even diving, but nary one word on horse racing.

. . . Why was steam horse Rock Hard Ten reluctant to train and enter the starting gate before the Preakness and the Belmont? Probably because the imposing-looking colt was rushed to make both races. "They changed his routine and he balked at the gate in the Preakness, he balked at the work and he’s going to balk when he runs," predicted one of California’s most successful trainers. He was right. Rock Hard Ten ran the worst race of his brief career in the Belmont, finishing a distant fifth as the second betting choice.

. . . Jack Van Berg didn’t want to take any credit, but the Hall of Fame trainer who turned 68 on June 7 was in part responsible for the record 11 ½-length Preakness victory by Smarty Jones.

"I know Bill Foster (stable foreman for trainer John Servis) because he worked with me for four or five years when I was racing back East," Van Berg said. "I talked to John after the Derby and told him not to work the horse (between the Derby and the Preakness). When a horse comes out of the Derby, all you have to do is make sure he’s fresh for the Preakness and that’s what John did. "He did a perfect job of training the horse. I admire him, I respect him and I was rooting for him."

Van Berg still has misgivings on Alysheba’s not winning the Triple Crown under Chris McCarron in 1987.

"It wasn’t the horse’s fault he didn’t win (the Belmont, fourth, beaten more than 14 lengths by Bet Twice)," Van Berg said. "I don’t like to make excuses, but he got a horrible ride. He’d have won as far as you can throw a baseball if Chris had let him run."