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Don’t cry for Smarty Jones

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Saturday was a day for a party. White carnation corsage pinned, up early for breakfast at the off-track, and hours spent waiting for the most eagerly anticipated moment in recent memory: Smarty Jones breaking from the gate at Belmont, poised to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

And surely, he broke well. But every horse has his best distance, and for dear Smarty Jones, a mile and a half was too much. Instead of a roar from the crowd as Birdstone nosed ahead, there was a wail of despair. The sound was more like the shriek of watching a car accident unfold than the usual joyous cheers heard at a horse race. In a moment, it was over. Longshot Birdstone had won the Belmont.

All my bets hinged on Smarty. And losing the money didn’t sting nearly as much as the thought of the Philly Phenom heading home with his win streak broken.

Some folks at the Belmont filled the same despicable role they did when Empire Maker upset Funny Cide’s Triple Crown quest last year … they booed and hissed as Edgar Prado and his mount Birdstone entered the winner’s circle, just as they did the year before when the Triple Crown contender was upset.

But Birdstone’s owner, Marylou Whitney, was as gracious and admirable as anyone could be … she said how much they all loved Smarty Jones, apologized, and wept. Jockey Edgar Prado reminded all that he was “just doing (my) job.” Trainer Nick Zito was poised and professional. A native New Yorker, Zito earned his first Belmont win in 12 attempts on Saturday, and longtime owner/breeder Whitney had won her first classic with a homebred colt. Smarty’s loss put a damper on what should have been a glorious day for both.

Deep down, nearly everyone was rooting for Smarty. Jockey Stewart Elliott did all he could, and Smarty ran with his whole heart. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough.

But this is not a time to be sorrowful. There is a silver lining to everything, and the Smarty Saga is no exception.

Since he didn’t win the Triple Crown, perhaps it is more likely that Smarty won’t be retired to “stud duty” right away. Smarty Jones will be a horse the people can follow for awhile, possibly watching him compete later on this year in the Breeder’s Cup at Lone Star Park, and then perhaps even onto his four year old season in 2005.

The Chapmans, who own Smarty Jones, have had the ride of their lives. For Roy Chapman, it couldn’t have come a moment too soon. Tethered to an oxygen tank, at 78 he has asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. He went to Smarty’s races in a wheelchair.

Trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott have become household names, and certainly reserved their respective places in racing history. Even Butterscotch, Servis’s 23 year-old lead pony, has his place in American hearts.

Bobby Camac, murdered in 2001, has been vindicated posthumously … the former trainer for the Chapmans encouraged breeding Smarty Jones’s dam, I’ll Get Along, to Elusive Quality. Without his input, Smarty Jones may never have been born.

That the Triple Crown was not achieved is disappointing, but not devastating. This has been a glorious time for the connections of Smarty Jones, and will not soon be forgotten.

I thought no story could be better than that of the “Sackatoga Six,” longtime friends who pooled their funds to buy a horse named Funny Cide, who won last year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness. They traveled with their entourage to view the races in a chartered school bus. When Funny Cide lost the Belmont to Empire Maker, I nearly started to cry. It was such a great story, what a wonderful Triple Crown legend that would have been. It was crushed in seconds.

But this year, I realized last year’s tragedy was really okay … because with Smarty Jones, there was an even better story: a horse that ran at Philly Park, who nearly died after fracturing his skull in a starting gate accident. He had an unknown-to-the-masses trainer and jockey, and his owners had sold all their horses, save two. He was one. He became the one.

And yet, the Triple Crown was not his, either.

The stories of these Classic champions keep getting better. Frankly, wondering what the next story will be is somewhat exciting in its own right. And the thousands of stories from the backside of every racetrack across the nation are told every day. Everyone knows a special circumstance, a unique opportunity, a devastating setback, a triumph when all seems lost.

Whose stories will enter the starting gate at next year’s Kentucky Derby is yet to be known. But rest assured, there will be a great story or two at the very least.

And as for Smarty Jones? His story isn’t over. Perhaps it’s just begun.

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