Quote me on this: Smarty deserves Horse of the Year

Nov 16, 2004 3:51 AM

Winston Churchill described a fanatic as "one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject."

That bromide could apply to zealots who are ranting that a horse named Ghostzapper has more talent than Man o’ War, Seabiscuit and Secretariat combined, and should be named Horse of the Year over Smarty Jones.

What did Ghostzapper do to warrant this unadulterated acclaim? Won the Breeders’ Cup Classic is all, defeating a suspect field that included a bunch of horses that were beating up on each other all year and a defending champion who hurt himself in the starting gate and was less than 100 percent during the running.

Ghostzapper won every race he started in this year, but he only ran four times. Besides the Classic and the Woodward, you’d have to be the best expert this side of Andy Beyer to name the other two races he won (nondescript farces called the Tom Fool and the Iselin), and those races were virtual walkovers. He faced only three—count ’em—three horses in each race! He beat six horses in the Woodward, meaning he defeated a total of 12 horses in three races before the Classic. Smarty Jones beat more horses than that in one race, annihilating 17 foes in the Kentucky Derby. In a field that size, a trainer doesn’t need a jockey for his horse, he needs Ben Hur.

Smarty Jones raced three times in five weeks and was unbeaten in eight lifetime starts until his final race, winning by a combined margin of more than 47 lengths, an average of nearly six lengths per start. But more than that, in winning the Derby and Preakness, he resurrected a sport running on fumes.

Smarty Jones came within a length of winning the Triple Crown and retiring unbeaten. Ghostzapper is nine for seven but once lost to an overpriced underachiever named Scrimshaw, for cryin’ out loud.

Critics pointedly say that Smarty Jones never beat older horses. But it wasn’t his fault he was retired in June at the tender age of three after losing the Belmont Stakes, a defeat that left a nation crestfallen. Smarty Jones hung up his horseshoes due to a combination of a minor injury and a lucrative financial breeding deal for his connections. Otherwise, he might be racing still, delighting his legions.

Ghostzapper is the darling of numbers gurus like Beyer and Len Ragozin. The horse earned an out-of-sight 128 Beyer figure for the Classic. Andy has done much for racing through the years, hawking the game as well as hissing at it, but let’s face it; Beyer figures mainly benefit him. Same with the Ragozin sheets. Sure, there are those who swear by them, but the only sheets I believe in provide me with warmth and cover when I go to bed.

Smarty Jones, on the other hand, drew numbers that a game in its death throes sorely needs in its grasp for survival. These are the Nielsen numbers that show how many people are watching a particular television event. When Smarty Jones was going for the Triple Crown, those numbers reached record proportions for a horse race.

Voters for Horse of the Year and other divisional championships will cast their ballots late next month, with the winners announced shortly thereafter. In the meantime, all this caterwauling and carping about who should be Horse of the Year could become old news by then, and you know what Lincoln said: "Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days." Ditto for news.

Perhaps all this bellowing on behalf of Smarty Jones will be in vain. Smarty Jones deserves Horse of the Year not only because of his accomplishments on the race track, but because he captured the heart of a game on life support, as well as the heart of a nation in need of a hero, even though it may be too late for racing. As John F. Kennedy once cautioned, "The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining."

Voters should not be afraid to align with Smarty. They should adhere to the sage words of Andrew Jackson: "One man with courage makes a majority."

With apologies to Buddy Delp, Ghostzapper might be the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle, but he’s no Smarty Jones. Never was. Never will be.

The homestretch

Mike Smith, a Hall of Fame jockey with recent Horse of the Year experience, says this year’s voting is too close to call.

"I’ll leave it up to the voters," said Smith, the regular rider of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri. "Both Smarty Jones and Ghostzapper achieved so much. Smarty Jones was just short of being a Triple Crown winner, but Ghostzapper is unbeaten this year and winning the Classic pulls a lot of votes. I’d love to have ridden either one. I’m sure what Smarty Jones did for racing will play a part in the vote, but both horses did so much for racing and Ghostzapper will run next year, so that’s pretty cool. I’d say it’s a tossup."

”¡ I’m 100 percent behind the jockeys in their bid to get adequate insurance coverage, but here’s a caveat for concern: the public has a short memory. Its primary interest is in cashing a bet, whether a horse has Bailey on its back or a baboon.