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So Long to the Triple Crown

Birdstone runs down Smarty Jones in the final furlong of the 11/2-mile race, spoiling the previously unbeaten colt's shot at history.

June 06, 2004|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

ELMONT, N.Y. — It wasn't the black cat, prowling near Smarty Jones' barn an hour before the Belmont Stakes. Trainer John Servis' lucky medium-blue sport coat should have negated that.

No, what beat Smarty Jones in the Belmont on Saturday was the 1 1/2 miles, the longest distance of the Triple Crown races and the backbreaker for many other good horses who had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

While it looked as though Smarty Jones might have had the Belmont nailed in the stretch -- with a 1 1/2-length lead and an eighth of a mile to go -- up in the stands Servis had been uncomfortable with the way his horse was running most of the race. Then Stewart Elliott looked back and had a sinking feeling. "Birdstone was coming on pretty fast," Elliott said. "I thought we were going to get beat."

Before a record crowd of 120,139, on a cool, overcast day when most of the rain held off, Birdstone won the Belmont by a length. Smarty Jones, who could have earned $5 million with a Derby-Preakness-Belmont sweep, finished second, eight lengths ahead of Royal Assault. Both Birdstone and Royal Assault are trained by Nick Zito, a native New Yorker who had failed with 11 starters in the Belmont, finishing second five times.

"We had a shot to make big history and we didn't do it," said Servis, a Philadelphia Park trainer who found the big time through Smarty Jones. "I don't know what I could have done differently, getting him ready for this race. My horse dug in turning for home, and just didn't have anything left. But he'll be like Spectacular Bid -- a great horse who didn't win the Triple Crown."

Like Spectacular Bid in 1979, Smarty Jones was an odds-on favorite, going off at 3-10. He became the sixth Derby-Preakness winner in the last eight years to falter in New York, and now the Triple Crown has gone another year without a sweep. The 11th and last horse to win all three races was Affirmed in 1978.

Edgar Prado, who rode Birdstone, was another Triple Crown party-pooper here in 2002 when he booted home Sarava and deep-sixed War Emblem's bid. Sarava's $2 win payoff, $142.50, is the Belmont record. Birdstone, the seventh choice in a nine-horse field, also produced a hefty return of $74.

Over a fast track that was producing fast times all day, the winning Belmont time was 2:27 2/5, more than three seconds off Secretariat's record but the second-fastest running in the last 10 years.

After the first three horses, the rest of the order of finish was Eddington, Rock Hard Ten, Tap Dancer, Master David, Caiman and Purge.

Breaking from the outside post, Smarty Jones was away sharply and Elliott was able to float him over, into third place behind Purge and Rock Hard Ten. Down the backstretch, Smarty Jones was surrounded by horses, with Purge in front and Rock Hard Ten and Eddington on his flanks. Birdstone was fifth after the opening half-mile, three lengths from the lead.

Smarty Jones and Rock Hard Ten broke loose from the others with three-eighths of a mile left. Birdstone was circling the field, five paths wide. At the quarter pole, Rock Hard Ten was backing up, and Birdstone continued his run as he and Smarty Jones distanced themselves from the rest of the field. Smarty Jones' 3 1/2-length lead was cut in half by the top of the stretch.

In the home lane, Prado went to work. He hit Birdstone six times right-handed, while Elliott, working hard with his horse, couldn't squeeze out a necessary spurt. Birdstone made the lead 70 yards from the wire.

"Early in the race, there were two horses inside us, and they had my horse wanting to run," Elliott said. "My horse was getting on the bit a little more than I wanted him, and that took its toll. I had trouble getting him to settle. The mile and a half just got to him. He never got a break the whole race. I wanted to get a nice and easy eighth of a mile, or quarter of a mile, sometime, and it didn't happen."

Trying to second-guess himself, Elliott could find no alternative to his ride.

"I didn't have much choice," he said. "If I had tried dragging him to the lead, he would have been fighting me even more."

In the stands, Smarty Jones' owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, strained to see the finish. Roy Chapman, who has emphysema and travels in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank, turned to Servis as the horses neared the wire and asked who the winner was.

"I felt bad for Mr. Chapman," Servis said. "They said winning the Kentucky Derby is like climbing Mt. Everest, and winning the Triple Crown is like climbing it three times. We climbed it twice, and just tried to climb it too fast the third time. I'm sorry to say this, but [this race] is what makes the game so great."

Smarty Jones is an average-sized horse, and Birdstone is even smaller. Birdstone races for his breeder, Marylou Whitney, whose late husband, C.V. "Sonny" Whitney, raced Phalanx and Counterpoint, respective winners of the Belmont in 1947 and 1951.

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