THE INSIDE TRACK WITH KEITH JONES
Like I was saying…
Team Smarty returned to Philadelphia after their stunning win in the Kentucky Derby as conquering heroes. Somehow the little horse from the small stable at the small racetrack outside Philly had won the world’s most important race. Trainer John Servis had prepared his colt brilliantly. Jockey Stewart Elliott, in his first Derby ride, had displayed nerves of steel, fighting through trouble early and putting Smarty in perfect position to show the world his talent. His owners, the Chapman’s, had exploded with joy as their beloved horse put their names into the history books. Forever. And along with the 60% of the million dollar Derby purse and the stud value for Smarty now skyrocketing, they’d just banked an extra $5 million. Remember the owner of Oaklawn Park, Charles Cella, had put up a $5 million dollar bonus for any horse that could win his Rebel Stakes, his Arkansas Derby and then go to Louisville and win the Kentucky Derby? That money was surely safe, right? Wrong. Smarty had done it and it was time for Mr. Cella to pony up. His entourage came to Philadelphia Park for a big press conference and he presented the check to the smiling owners. A smile, I assure you, that was as big as the check.
The media coverage was overwhelming. Smarty got his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Not many horses can say, or whiny, that. The national news outlets did stories on the now blossoming heartthrob. He was even featured on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, the nation’s top national evening news broadcast of the day. And while some outfits shy from the spotlight, Team Smarty used the moment to promote the sport that had now graced them with a lifetime of memories. The Smarty bandwagon went from full to overflowing. A Smarty morning gallop was organized here for the public. Come watch Smarty stretch his legs one morning. Would anyone show up? The place was packed! A spot on the rail for a close look? The earliest of birds only. Smarty merchandise flew off the shelves. He was a sensation and people loved him. And one other note. If you’ve ever been to the track in the morning to watch the horses work out, at any time, there are dozens upon of dozens of horses out putting in their work. But things were different for Smarty. As a Kentucky Derby champion, your value as a racehorse has now soared. No sense risking an accident with all those other horses at there at the same time. When it was time for Smarty to hit the track, he had it all to himself. The spoils of a champion and of course well deserved.
So it’s off to Baltimore and the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. No rest for the weary, the Preakness is only two weeks after the Derby. That was not a big deal in the early days of racing when the Triple Crown was born, but it’s much different today. Back then, it was not unusual for horses to run more than once a week, something unheard of in modern day racing. So in the early days, two weeks was plenty of rest. Today, a top horse rarely runs more often than once a month, if that, so to come right back to run again in two weeks is something these horses have not experienced. The question becomes whether a horse can replicate a top effort again in such short order. A major race like the Kentucky Derby is extremely taxing physically on the animals and recovery time is needed. But with only one chance to win racing’s most coveted prize, the Triple Crown, the Derby’s winning trainer really has little choice than to run in the Preakness and hope for the best. It’s interesting to note that trainer john Servis opted not to give Smarty an official workout between the Derby and the Preakness. He felt his fitness level was such that Smarty would maintain his sharpness without the additional work.
The Preakness field is always smaller than the Derby. Trainers show up with horses for the Derby that really have no chance of winning, well maybe not no chance because strange things do happen, but certainly with very little chance, just to say that they had a horse run in the Kentucky Derby. It’s back to reality when Preakness time comes and there are far fewer pretenders. Smarty faced 18 rivals in the Derby, just 9 in the Preakness. The way the two races played out are strikingly similar, with the exception of the bumping and tight quarters Smarty encountered because of the Derby traffic in the opening furlong. Lion Heart, his speedy rival, was entered again in the Preakness and again gave Smarty the perfect target to follow and run at when the time came. Lion Heart and Smarty were two of the quickest horses of their generation, so the fact that they would be first and second again midway through the race was of no surprise. If you want to be the “stalking” horse, it’s always nice to have the other speed horse break from the starting gate on your inside. You let him take the lead from his inside position and then follow along from the outside. To Smarty’s benefit, Lion Heart did indeed have an inside post position.
The gate opened for the 2004 Preakness and Smarty came out like a shot. A beautiful clean start, away very alertly and immediately toward the front of the pack. Perfect. It took Lion Heart just a short time to gather his speed but in very short order Lion Heart was in front and Smarty was sitting second on the outside. Again, perfect. As they rounded the first turn and moved to the backstretch, Lion Heart had opened a clear, two length lead. No cause for concern, a long way to go and patience is a virtue. Not much changed down the backstretch, Lion Heart and Smarty running one-two, but as they made it to the far turn, what they call the “real running” started. Smarty started to close the gap. Lion Heart’s jockey, Hall of Famer Mike Smith decided to try and make Smarty go around him on the outside to cover extra ground. Smarty’s jockey Stu Elliott did not take the bait. He moved Smarty through on the inside of Lion Heart to make his challenge and when he did, the race was over. He continued to gain and as they turned for home, Smarty had the lead. What happened next would be historical. Smarty not only pulled away, he ROARED away. In full stride, full of run, his lead widened with every stride. He would flash under the finish line an amazing 11½ lengths in front, the biggest margin of victory in the history of the race. He had run the race of his life. He had never been better. An astonishing and brilliant performance. In fact I dare say, perfect.
It would be three weeks until the Belmont Stakes in New York and a chance at the elusive Triple Crown. We’ll talk about those three weeks and the fateful running of the Belmont when we come back next time. Don’t miss it.
I’ll see you next time.