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THE BELMONT STAKES

Even for the Winner, It's a Sorry Situation

Everyone wanted Smarty Jones to win the Triple Crown, including Birdstone's connections.

June 06, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. — Edgar Prado rode Birdstone to a longshot upset in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, then turned to jockey Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones as they galloped out.

"I'm sorry, my friend," he said. "I really mean it."

The Belmont was won, but a Triple Crown was lost.

There were apologies all around, and they actually seemed genuine.

Nick Zito, Birdstone's trainer, was still on the track when John Servis, Smarty Jones' trainer, leaned in to offer his congratulations.

"I said, 'John, I'm really sorry,' " Zito said.

Birdstone's owner Marylou Whitney, even said it three times.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, that Smarty Jones couldn't win," she said. "We kept saying to Prado, 'Be second.' "

But Prado was first, spoiling an attempt at a Triple Crown for the second time in his career.

He rode longshot Sarava to victory two years ago after War Emblem, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, stumbled out of the gate and finished eighth.

"I feel happy and sad at the same time," Prado said. "You know, very sad because I spoil the Triple Crown one more time.

"This sport needed a hero, and I thought it would be great for us. But I have to go out there and try to do the best I can to win a race, and that's what I did."

The drought without a Triple Crown winner grows to 27 years, but Zito's Belmont drought is over.

A native New Yorker, he won the Kentucky Derby in 1991 and 1994 with Strike The Gold and Go For Gin and the 1996 Preakness with Louis Quatorze. But he had never won the Belmont, finishing second five times.

"I told a few people out there, I think this is my greatest win," Zito said. "And for so many reasons. Maybe it's the magnitude that goes along with this win and everything Smarty Jones brought to the table. The five seconds in the Belmont. I don't know."

Even so, one more second-place finish wouldn't have been so terrible, he said.

"I would have took it," Zito said. "I wanted this Triple Crown to get done because there are so many expectations about what we are supposed to do. Sure, I would have been happy with another second place."

Birdstone's win says something about perseverance. His success as a 2-year-old hadn't translated as a 3-year-old, and he hadn't won a race this year.

He ran eighth in the Kentucky Derby, more than 15 lengths behind Smarty Jones, after throwing a shoe.

And had it rained as hard as predicted Saturday, Zito said he might have scratched Birdstone, who instead went off as a 36-1 longshot.

Unlike the three horses that took the lead together on the backstretch -- Smarty Jones, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington -- Birdstone bided his time.

Then the 1 1/2-mile Belmont claimed another victim who couldn't get the distance in Smarty Jones, and Birdstone -- a son of 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone out of Dear Birdie -- came from behind.

"It's the mile and a half," Zito said. "I've been second five times. I know what that means, that last little bit. I think that's what happened with Smarty, that last little bit."

So Birdstone goes down with the Triple Crown spoilers of years past, an answer to a trivia question someday.

Prado will cash his second Belmont Stakes victory check, and will have a week to celebrate: He was suspended for seven days beginning today for careless riding in the fourth race at Belmont Park on Saturday.

For Elliott, the journeyman jockey who almost rode his way into history, it is back to work.

He even laughed when someone asked what Prado said to him after the race.

"He said he was sorry," Elliott said. "I said, 'Oh, what are you going to do? That's horse racing.' "

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Tripped Up

In six of the last eight years, a horse has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes -- but failed to win the Belmont Stakes:

*--* YEAR HORSE BELMONT FINISH 2004 Smarty Jones Second, one length behind Birdstone 2003 Funny Cide Third, five lengths behind Empire Maker 2002 War Emblem Eighth, 19 1/2 lengths behind Sarava 1999 Charismatic Third, 1 1/2 lengths behind Lemon Drop Kid 1998 Real Quiet Second, a nose behind Victory Gallop 1997 Silver Charm Second, 3/4 of a length behind Touch Gold

*--*

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Belmont Blues

How 18 horses that won the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes -- lost in the series' final race, the Belmont Stakes:

2004

SMARTY JONES, at 3-10 odds, presses front-runners Purge and Rock Hard Ten, puts the latter away on the second turn, and has a 3- 1/2- length lead with a quarter of a mile to go, but can't hold off Birdstone, who wins by a length.

2003

FUNNY CIDE is forced to set the pace over a sloppy track, battles with Empire Maker on the second turn, then fades early in the stretch. He finishes third, five lengths behind Empire Maker, with Ten Most Wanted second.

2002

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