Triple Crown took toll
on Smarty’s stardom

Aug 10, 2004 5:48 AM

After shining brightly as a welcome blip on racing’s barren radar screen before flaming out in the Black Hole known as the Belmont Stakes, the shooting star that was Smarty Jones is gone.

Reportedly hors de combat with ouchy ankles suffered during the exacting pursuit of the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones has been retired to stud. The horse that caught the attention of even the most casual fan and rejuvenated a game on life-support will not race again. Such is the risk with a 3-year-old horse that is asked to run a mile and a quarter, a mile and three-sixteenths and a mile and a half in a span of five weeks.

The last horse to do that—win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, which comprise the Triple Crown—was Affirmed in 1978. Since its inception in 1919, only 11 thoroughbreds have done it. After smashing triumphs in the Derby and the Preakness, Smarty Jones appeared on his way to victory in the Belmont, only to falter in the final yards, succumbing by a length to 34-1 longshot Birdstone.

Bob Baffert has flirted with the Triple Crown before. He knows she is an elusive temptress. In 1997, Silver Charm won the first two legs but lost the Belmont by three-quarters of a length to Touch Gold. The 50-year-old trainer’s most crushing and indelible setback came in 1998, when Real Quiet dissipated a five-length lead in the stretch and lost the Belmont by a scant nose to Victory Gallop. In 2001, Point Given finished fifth as the Derby favorite, then redeemed himself with wins in the Preakness and Belmont.

Whether it’s the grind of three such races in just over a month or the challenging distances that have been insurmountable in the past 26 years is open to debate. But Baffert has his theories, none definitive.

"Some horses can take it, some can’t," he said. "I don’t think it’s the distances or the short period of time they run them in. My horses came back and ran the following year but all horses are made different, so you never know."

Even after winning the Derby by 23/4 lengths and the Preakness by a record 11½ lengths to remain undefeated in his eight starts, Smarty Jones still had to successfully negotiate the mile and a half of the Belmont to take the Triple Crown. The betting public made him 3-10 to do it.

"Smarty was a pretty fast horse but going a mile and a half, things happen when a horse gets tired and I guess it was too far for him," Baffert allowed. "But he definitely was a very fast horse. The mile and a half got him."

Smarty Jones now will enjoy a pleasurable life at stud at Three Chimneys Farm in Kentucky, servicing 100 mares a season at upwards of $75,000 a pop. That’s $7.5 million a year, almost as much as he earned winning eight of nine races in less than two years on the race track ($7,613,155).

While Smarty Jones is a cinch to win an Eclipse Award as top 3-year-old colt, Horse of the Year honors is another matter, since Smarty won’t be around to challenge the likes of 6-year-old Pleasantly Perfect in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Lone Star Park on Oct. 30. Pleasantly Perfect was upset in the San Diego Handicap by the unbeaten upstart Choctaw Nation, who was getting 10 pounds from the runner-up. Each will carry 124 in their next race, the Pacific Classic on Aug. 22, and each would carry 126 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Now the Smarty-Perfect showdown is a matter of conjecture, to the dismay of many.

"It’s too bad because I would have liked to seen what Smarty would have done against older horses," Baffert said. "That’s the only thing wrong with our business; you just can’t keep these stars around long enough."

Call it the practicality of economics.

The homestretch

The decision by Del Mar’s stewards to suspend Patrick Valenzuela for the rest of this year and to recommend that he "not be considered for future licensing by the California Horse Racing Board in any capacity" seems justified to me, and for Patrick to say the ruling prevents him from earning a livelihood shows he is still in denial. It was his failure to provide hair follicles suitable for drug testing as required by terms of his conditional license that prevented him from meeting regulations of that pact.

"Rather than make every effort to comply with the hair follicle process, (Valenzuela) found another way to evade testing (by shaving his body hairs) and thereby violated (the license agreement)," the stewards’ statement went on, adding: "These obligations cannot be compromised. (Valenzuela) has been a talented jockey for many years, but it is evident that he has failed to learn that he must be held accountable for the consequences of his behavior." Of course, Valenzuela says he’ll appeal.

”¡ Racing fans who have never enjoyed the bucolic seaside setting of Monmouth Park are in for an enjoyable experience when they attend the 2007 Breeders’ Cup at the New Jersey track. Nestled in Oceanport, hard by Asbury Park, Monmouth Park is one of the Garden State’s true treasures.

”¡ No Major League baseball player looks sloppier in his uniform than Eric Gagne, last year’s Cy Young Award winner, who also deserves a permanent place on Mr. Blackwell’s "worst dressed" list.