Like I was saying…
Smarty Jones was now within one race of immortality. The Belmont Stakes. A grueling test at a distance of a mile and a half. And not just grueling because of the demanding distance, but because that mile and a half comes at the end of a five week span where the horse has already run the two most demanding and taxing races of his career. The top level modern thoroughbreds never run three times in five weeks, much less against the best competition under the most extreme circumstances. The Belmont Stakes is called “The Test of Champions” for that reason. Survival of the fittest. On the back end of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, it is a very difficult race to win, even under optimal conditions, even for the very best of the breed.
Writer Charles Hatten was credited with coining the term we know today as the Triple Crown in 1930. Some suggest the term goes back a few years before that to 1923, but regardless, the idea was the same. A three year-old race horse must win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown and again, all within that five week time frame. And since the races are restricted to three year-olds, any given horse gets one chance. One. Sir Barton was the first to accomplish the feat in 1919 and since that time, only ten other horses have won the Triple Crown. Eleven - total – that’s how hard it is to do. And now Smarty was within a mile and a half of being mentioned in the same breath with the legends of the sport like Whirlaway, Citation, Seattle Slew, and of course, the incomparable Secretariat.
Anyone who was here that day will never forget it. The building was filled with Smarty fans, literally busting at the seams. The anticipation and excitement had no measure. Off the charts. He was going to do it. Smarty had registered a resounding win at the Derby and had put himself in the history books with a record setting performance in the Preakness. There was no one that was capable of beating him. Or was there? Everyone here was ready to start the party of a lifetime.
The skies in New York were threatening all day. Team Smarty was not concerned. He had handled a sloppy track at Churchill Downs and rain was maybe even a plus. Not a drop fell, however, and I’ll touch on the irony of that a bit later. Eight horses would challenge Smarty that day and while he had drawn the outside stall in the starting gate, it was not considered a factor. It’s a long run into the first turn at Belmont Park, giving every horse adequate time to establish the early position they seek. Post positions generally are of little consequence in the Belmont Stakes. It would not be a factor today, but something else would. I’ll get to that as the race plays out.
Smarty always broke well from the gate and the Belmont would be no different. He came out cleanly and moved toward the lead group of horses as he also always did as they made the way to the long sweeping first turn. There were two horses on his inside, just ahead of him, as he hit the first turn, Purge, a solid speed horse, and Rock Hard Ten, a monster of a race horse, as physically imposing as just about any horse you’ll ever see. He never did quite race as well as he looked, but he was a quality horse nonetheless. Third and on the outside entering that long first turn, Smarty slowly moved up with his two rivals and entering the backstretch had pushed on by and now had the lead. But it would be no easy lead. Eddington, ridden by Jerry Bailey, who many considered the nation’s top jockey, was on Smarty’s outside flank to press the pace. Many found this strange. Eddington was a come-from-behind type. And if you watch the video, you can see Bailey pushing on Eddington’s neck to urge him on and keep up with Smarty. It’s more taxing for a horse on the lead when he has another horse to contend with. If they’re alone, they relax and can gallop along in a comfort zone and conserve energy for the telling final moments. Thanks to Mr. Bailey, Smarty would find no comfort zone today. Eddington would soon drop out of the race and the owners of Eddington would never ask Mr. Bailey to ride for them again. A curious ride to say the least and a telling response from the angered owners. Bailey would later deny that he had sacrificed his horse’s chances simply to ruin the day for Smarty and the unknown jockey Stewart Elliott, but you will find others that absolutely disagree. In a recent radio interview I was listening to, a noted New York turf writer put it this way. “Eight riders that day teamed up to take down Stewart Elliott.” Jealousy can be very cruel.
Back to the race. Smarty in front, Eddington prompting on the outside, and now Rock Hard Ten was in a perfect spot, sitting on the inside behind two horses that might be in the process of tiring each other out. He was ridden by Alex Solis, a top West Coast rider of the day. The perfect opportunity to now be patient. It’s a long race. Wait for the two horses in front of you to show signs of fatigue and then make a move. A rider could hardly script a better scenario. But as Eddington dropped back and Smarty continued on, what did Solis do? He immediately moved up on the inside of Smarty to engage him in battle. More pressure for Smarty. No breathers in the longest race of a horse’s life. Why make a premature move like that? I have no answer. A move that, like Bailey’s, seemed destined for failure. It wasn’t long before that failure played out. As they raced into the far turn, now five furlongs from history, Smarty raced Rock Hard Ten into defeat, just as he had Eddington, and for the first time in the race had opened a clear lead.
Here at home, the building was rocking. Shaking on its foundation. The roars from the crowd were deafening. The volume dial turned to maximum. Approaching the top of the stretch, Smarty had opened up a three length lead. Now just the length of the Belmont stretch between him and his place in history. But danger loomed. A late running horse named Birdstone was starting to gather momentum. He’d been able to sit back in the pack, conserve his energy while Smarty was hounded at every turn. Birdstone was gaining. The Belmont stretch is long indeed but well into the stretch, Smarty still had a clear lead. It was getting late. Down to that last fateful furlong, and now Smarty started to show signs of weakening. Birdstone was still coming. The lead was down to two lengths and Birdstone showed every indication that he could – and would - sustain his rally. Smarty desperate now, could he possibly gut it out and reach the finish line before Birdstone reached him? A sixteenth to go, Smarty’s lead was only a length. Birdstone was now gaining even faster. And with about a hundred yards to go, the dream ended. There would be no stopping Birdstone. He surged past and would forever have his name written as the winner of the 2004 Belmont Stakes. Smarty had given everything he had. A picture of courage. He had run brilliantly in defeat. But defeat it was. The Triple Crown. One chance. Over.
A couple of quick afterthoughts. The incredible roars here at the track as Smarty rounded the far turn at Belmont still resonate in my ears today. Amazing and electric. When Birdstone passed him, that volume went to zero. And I mean zero. From maximum to nothing in a blink. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
And in the gallop out after the race, Edgar Prado, the winning jockey aboard Birdstone and one of the true gentleman in the sport, brought his horse alongside Smarty and Stewart Elliott and said something. His words. “I’m sorry.” The racing world, maybe even the world period, had wanted Smarty to win and become the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years. Maybe even Prado had been one of them. But he had done his job as a professional should and spoiled a moment that seemed so within our grasp.
And finally, remember the threatening skies? Prospects of rain? The trainer of Birdstone, Nick Zito, would later say that even the slightest drops would have forced him to scratch Birdstone from the race. The rains never came and neither did the storybook ending that our hearts had so dearly hoped for.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the Smarty story.
I’ll see you next time.