Bird of Prey

As a tribute to Birdstone’s remarkable feat of siring two different winners of a Triple Crown race in the same year (the first stallion to do so since Count Fleet in 1951), and from his first crop no less, I am re-printing my 2004 Belmont Stakes recap from the Blood-Horse. (Sorry, it’s pretty long).

This was to be the year. You could feel it. Divine forces were guiding Smarty Jones up the sacred slopes of Mt. Olympus. Only a quarter mile away, the pantheon was in sight. Every step to this point had been perfectly orchestrated, and Smarty's ascent to immortality seemed written in the stars.

The vast majority of the record 120,139 in attendance for the June 5 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) rose to their feet, cheering wildly and pumping their fists in the air. Nothing left now but the Secretariat-like procession to the wire.

But the cruelty of the Triple Crown gods knows no boundaries. Like the sirens, their song is sweet, and their lure is irresistible, but in the end, only heartbreak awaits those who follow. Now, the gods have hurled down their thunderbolts on one of racing's most beloved heroes ever. And so, the magical Triple Crown journey of Smarty Jones sadly ends in defeat, as adults ask how and young children ask why.

The legendary Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens, who won an unprecedented five consecutive Belmonts, used to say about those seemingly invincible titans invading his Belmont Park turf, "The buildings get a lot taller once you cross the Hudson River."

As it turned out, not even Thoroughbred racing's Superman could leap those buildings. And it was only appropriate that the person chosen to derail the "Smarty Express" was New York's favorite son, Nick Zito, whose towering presence in the Big Apple over the past 15 years has proven an obstacle for many an invader.

But despite all his victories in classics and major stakes, the Belmont has been the proverbial thorn in Zito's side. Five times he had finished second in "the test of the champion," with Thirty Six Red, Strike the Gold, Go for Gin, Star Standard, and A P Valentine. Now, with the racing world watching and hoping to witness history, it was Zito's pint-sized Birdstone who denied Smarty Jones the Triple Crown and provided Zito with his first Belmont victory to go along with his 1991 and '94 Kentucky Derby and 1996 Preakness triumphs.

The horse assistant trainer Reynaldo Abreu dubbed "Little Man" turned into "Little Big Man," as he wore down a courageous, but rubber-legged Smarty Jones in the final sixteenth to win the 136th Belmont by a length, with Smarty finishing eight lengths ahead of another Zito-trained horse, Royal Assault. The final time for the 1 1/2 miles was 2:27 2/5. (Birdstone’s son, Summer Bird, won this year’s Belmont in 2:27 2/5).

If anyone deserved this Belmont victory more than Zito it was Birdstone, who failed to grow at all from two to three and became the most maligned 3-year-old on the Derby trail. No one respected him, even though he won the prestigious Champagne Stakes at Belmont last fall. Other trainers scoffed at him. No one wanted to ride him. Only jockey Edgar Prado and his agent, Bob Frieze, believed in him, and even they drew criticism from one trainer back in April who couldn't believe they would choose to ride "a pony" over his horse.

But the colt's biggest supporter was Abreu, who was bawling after the race, tears streaming down his face. Birdstone's owner, Marylou Whitney, went over to him after the race and gave him a hug. "You were right," she said.

Abreu kept telling Zito, Whitney, and her husband, John Hendrickson, "Don't lose faith in Little Man. No matter what, don't ever lose faith."

Now, here he was leading Birdstone, all 900 pounds of him, back to the test barn in front of a stunned and deflated crowd, too drained to pay any attention. Still shaking, Abreu said to the Belmont winner, "You deserve this, little one, you deserve it." He then gave the colt a big slap on the rump. "They said you were too little, but they didn't know how big your heart is."

Neither did anyone know quite how big Smarty Jones' heart is. But they do now. With stamina always a nagging question in the back of people's minds, Smarty was asked to do the near-impossible. After sitting in perfect position behind a legitimate :48 3/5 half, jockey Stewart Elliott sent him to the lead on the backstretch, while putting in a gut-wrenching third quarter in :22 4/5, unheard of in a mile and a half race. That was followed by another testing quarter in :23 3/5. By the time he neared the quarter pole, he was rolling on the lead, increasing his margin with every stride. The crowd, now in a frenzy, never noticed the mile and a quarter fraction of 2:00 2/5, which would have won every Kentucky Derby but four. And this was a horse who had had only one slow seven-furlong work in 1:29 1/5 since April 24.

Turning for home, it was already obvious Smarty was shortening stride, but still he battled on, leading past the eighth pole. He tried to fight back when Birdstone came to him, but he had no more to give. Had the 36-1 Birdstone not been in the race, Smarty Jones would have won the Belmont by eight lengths, become a part of history, and be mentioned among the sport's all-time greats. But it was not meant to be. Back at the test barn, Abreu was saddened when he saw Smarty's legs literally trembling from exhaustion.

This is a horse who drew nearly 10,000 people of all ages to his home track of Philadelphia Park the Saturday after the Preakness just to watch him gallop, some arriving as early as 5 a.m. As the doors leading to the apron opened, there was a mad dash to secure a spot by the rail that looked as if Bloomingdales was running a 75%-off sale.

The morning Smarty vanned to Belmont was a scene that transcended anything Thoroughbred racing has ever seen. At 9:30, with three helicopters disrupting the morning silence, two motorcycle police officers arrived, ready to escort Smarty on the first leg of his journey. Officer John Gladu removed his helmet, put on a Smarty Jones hat, then took out his camera and began taking pictures of the horse standing in a grassy paddock adjacent to the loading ramp. "Hey, I'm just a fan." he said.

Soon they were off, as people all along neighboring Galloway Road stood in front of their homes photographing and videotaping the van as it went by. Others just gave a double thumbs-up, several shouting, "Go get 'em, Smarty." Two Bensalem police cars blocked traffic on busy Street Rd., while an unmarked police car tucked in behind the van. At the tollbooth for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, everyone gathered outside the booths, applauding and cheering for Smarty Jones as he moved through. Shortly after getting on the turnpike, the van passed a billboard that read, "Look out New York, Smarty's Coming!" After leaving Pennsylvania, the van was picked up by New Jersey state troopers, who eventually turned it over to the New York police for the final leg of the trip.

This was just a sample of how rampant Smarty Fever had become, especially in the Philadelphia area. Meanwhile, Zito was quietly preparing Birdstone for the Belmont in the tranquil confines of his barn in Saratoga.

Zito had no idea what to expect after a winter and spring that had been mostly a nightmare, despite several highs along the way. It all started last fall when Zito unleashed a mighty trio of 2-year-olds in Birdstone; Buckram Oak Farm's Eurosilver, winner of the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland; and Robert LaPenta's The Cliff's Edge, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club and Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Suddenly, Zito, although ecstatic over his powerful arsenal of Triple Crown candidates, was burdened with the pressure of being expected to make a major impact on the Derby, while dealing with three owners, all of whom were already having visions of roses dancing in their heads.

Zito packed his bags in Kentucky last November and headed for the Palm Meadows training center in Boynton Beach, Fla. Although the first Saturday in May was still some six months away, the presence of the Derby pervaded Zito's life almost on a daily basis. "I'm superstitious, and there's just too much Derby talk," Zito said back in January. "I want everyone talking Derby to me in the spring, not now."

All winter and early spring, Zito kept thinking, "Great expectations bring great disappointment." Those words came back to haunt him when April rolled around and Zito had all but fallen off the Derby trail. The Cliff's Edge had been beaten in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay as the overwhelming favorite, and then finished a troubled third in the Florida Derby, a race Zito felt he should have won. Eurosilver, after winning a soft allowance race, was defeated in the Swale Stakes the same day as the Florida Derby. After being forced to miss the Blue Grass Stakes because of a swollen gland, the colt was taken away from Zito by Buckram Oak owner Mahmoud Fustok, who turned him over to Carl Nafzger. Zito was hurt over the move, but accepted it and moved on.

Birdstone had also won an easy allowance race before floundering over a sealed track at Turfway Park in the Lane's End Stakes, finishing fifth as the 3-5 favorite. Zito and jockey Jerry Bailey voiced their displeasure on national TV over the decision to seal a dry track. Another setback followed when an elevated white blood cell count forced Zito to scratch Birdstone from the Blue Grass and train him up to the Derby off a six-week layoff.

All of a sudden it was April 10, and Zito had to make some fast decisions. He could see the Derby crumbling before his eyes. "It's unbelievable this year," he said at the time. "We're getting down to the one-shot area. I cannot wait for the madness to stop. Hopefully, I can have any kind of starter in the Derby."

With The Cliff's Edge now his one big horse, Zito decided to run him in the Blue Grass and send the lightly-raced and improving Royal Assault, owned by Tracy Farmer, to the Wood Memorial. Just when Zito thought the curtain had come down on his Derby chances, The Cliff's Edge won the Blue Grass over Lion Heart, earning a huge Beyer Speed Figure. Royal Assault ran a credible fifth in the Wood, and Zito felt like he had found a legitimate Belmont horse.

But Zito's good fortune didn't last long. Over another sealed track in the Kentucky Derby, The Cliff's Edge finished fifth after losing both his front shoes, while Birdstone, who also lost a shoe, again floundered, although his eighth-place finish, while being bounced around along the inside, kept Zito's hopes alive for the Belmont. When The Cliff's Edge suffered a bruised foot at Pimlico that would keep him out of the Preakness and Belmont, it left Birdstone and Royal Assault (who won the Sir Barton Stakes on Preakness day) as Zito's two hopes against the mighty Smarty Jones in the Belmont. Also thrown into Zito's Triple Crown mix was Sir Shackleton, who developed quickly to win the Derby Trial before faltering in the Preakness.

With Smarty Mania sweeping the country, there was little talk of anyone else, although some felt Preakness runner-up Rock Hard Ten and Peter Pan winner Purge had the potential to threaten Smarty Jones in the Belmont. Zito sent Birdstone to Saratoga to train, while keeping Royal Assault at Belmont. When Birdstone turned in a strong six-furlong work over the deep Oklahoma training track, Whitney, despite wanting Smarty Jones to sweep the Triple Crown and feeling Birdstone was unable to beat him, nevertheless said to Zito, "Go for it."

For Zito, it had been a frustrating year, especially with Birdstone. The half-brother to last year's champion 3-year-old filly, Bird Town, was a late foal, being born on May 16, and had not grown much. "I just can't understand it," he said. "This poor horse has never gained a pound, and has never grown an inch. But he's got guts and he has a right to run in the Belmont Stakes."

Few agreed, and there was little or nothing good said or written about the horse. "Everybody's been knocking this horse all along, and even (Jerry) Bailey deserted him," Abreu said. "All because he's little. I don't want to hear it. I know he's little; what can you do about it? There's nothing wrong with being small. All I know is that I love this horse. He's a running s.o.b. and he tries so hard. His only two bad races were on a sealed track. I'm telling you, they better have their running shoes on."

Birdstone has been suffering indignities ever since he was a young horse. When he was sent to Padua Stables in Ocala, Fla., to be broken, it was learned after he arrived that he had been sent by mistake. The horse that was supposed to be shipped was a Storm Cat colt, who Overbrook Farm and Whitney owned in a foal-sharing partnership. Farm trainer Randy Bradshaw was asked to check the newly arrived colt's papers, which indicated he had a good deal of white on him. Bradshaw informed the parties involved that this was just "a plain little old bay."

The colt nevertheless remained at Padua, and Bradshaw wound up breaking a future Belmont winner. He recalls calling Zito and telling him, "He's not very big, but he does everything right, he's training well, and he's very professional."

Birdstone shipped down to Belmont from Saratoga the Wednesday before the Belmont, the same day Smarty Jones arrived. No one noticed. The next day, with a massive throng gathered outside Smarty's barn, and Zito’s horses having to walk right by there to get to the track, Zito elected to keep Birdstone away from the madness and sent him and Royal Assault to the training track. No one noticed.

"I can't believe it over there," Zito said, referring to Smarty's barn. "I'm just going to the training track; it's nice and calm there."

Smarty, meanwhile, went to the track just after 5:30. Owner Roy Chapman arrived in a mini-van, and was wheeled to the gap where he watched his colt gallop, with trainer John Servis alongside aboard the pony Butterscotch, who had been kicked by Smarty the morning before as they were returning from the track.

Zito, like Whitney, had no grandiose visions of upsetting Smarty Jones. "I don't see how Smarty is going to get beat, unless he beats himself," Zito said. "But what's wrong with finishing second to a hero? If someone is going to beat him, they're going to have to have a very good day and move way forward, while he has to move way back. But we're looking at it positively. You have to."

Zito took some comfort in knowing that if he did manage to pull off the upset, he, as a New York hero himself, might have a better chance of escaping the wrath of the crowd than if someone else perpetrated the dastardly deed.

"The one thing I have going for me is that I do have the New York deal going, so maybe I'll get a little break. They'll only throw one beer can at me instead of the whole six pack," he said.

The morning of the race, Frieze stopped by the barn, which as usual was devoid of reporters or photographers. "Don't worry," Frieze told Zito. "We want the press here tomorrow, not today."

The ominous weather forecast of a cold rain all day and heavy winds never materialized, with only a few light sprinkles falling on Belmont during the day. The crowd, as expected, came pouring in early and continued to arrive until late in the afternoon, shattering the old record of 103,222 set two years ago.

Smarty Jones broke sharply from the outside post in the field of nine and outran Eddington to the first turn. Elliott tried to take a hold of him and get position but Alex Solis on Rock Hard Ten floated him out going into the first turn. Purge, breaking from post 2, showed good speed and held a slight advantage over Rock Hard Ten, with Smarty Jones in good position just outside those two.

Prado was content to settle Birdstone in seventh, then eased him up into fifth, while racing about five paths off the rail. The opening two fractions over the fast track were tame enough, but the tempo picked up noticeably when Bailey surprisingly sent Eddington up to challenge outside Smarty Jones. Rock Hard Ten then made another move at him from the inside. Servis could tell Smarty was not as relaxed as he had been in the Derby and Preakness.

Earlier in the week, Servis said Elliott was going to have to shine in the Belmont. "Let's face it, we got a bullseye on our back," he said. Apparently he was right.

"When he was dragging Stewie out of the saddle on the backside, I had a bad feeling," Servis said. "You can't do that and win going a mile and a half. That was one of the things that helped us in the Derby and the Preakness; he relaxed so well. He just didn't relax today."

Prado eased Birdstone out off the rail, and was able to get him to settle nicely, about four lengths off the lead. Elliott, feeling the pressure from Eddington on his outside and Rock Hard Ten and Purge on his inside, decided he'd have a better shot of getting Smarty to relax if he put him on the lead. But it took a brutal quarter to get him there, and another testing quarter to keep him there. By the three-eighths pole, he had managed to run his three pursuers into the ground and quickly opened a clear lead as the crowd went crazy. The three big contenders were cooked.

But Prado still had a ton of horse, and it was time to pick up the pieces. "I knew I had a good chance to win at the three-eighths pole, when my horse kept coming slowly and Smarty wasn't able to open up any more," he said. "I knew all he had to do was maintain his speed and his pace and he was going to get there."

Prado and Birdstone went after Smarty out in the middle of the track and suddenly the dream started evaporating right before everyone's eyes. Each one of Birdstone's little strides brought him closer to Smarty. Everyone knew by then that Smarty would have no ammunition left with which to fight back, and the wire was not coming up nearly fast enough for him to hang on.

Then came the familiar hush from the crowd, as it realized all was lost. Smarty was beaten for the first time in his career. Another body had joined the five recent ones (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide) strewn just below the summit of racing's most elusive peak.

In the stands, people were crying. Even Whitney was near tears, not for her victory, but for depriving Smarty his chance for immortality and for what a victory would have done for the sport. "I feel so awful for Smarty Jones," she said. "We were hoping we'd be second. I love Smarty. He's done more for racing than anyone I've ever known."

When congratulated on his victory, all Hendrickson could say was, "No, that was bad."

Servis came over to Zito, who was more restrained in his emotions than usual, and offered his congratulations. When Zito apologized, Servis said, "What do you mean? You did a great job."

But for Birdstone, there still was one final indignity. Just as Abreu was about to lead the horse into the tunnel to return to the backstretch, he was instructed by the outrider to walk back along the track to the backstretch gate by the main gap. When he arrived, however, the gate was locked, with the locks held together by plastic cords. Abreu went from feelings of ecstasy to anger as he found himself stranded with a horse that needed water and to relax after his grueling trip.

Fortunately, he had a pair of scissors in his pocket and was able cut through the plastic. But his problems were far from over. By now, cars were piling out of the track, and as Abreu, Birdstone, and several others from Zito's crew tried to make their way through the traffic, a stretch limo nearly ran into Birdstone. A number of patrons helped stop traffic while an incensed Abreu finally was able to lead Birdstone to the test barn.

While Birdstone's safety was totally ignored, Zito was given an escort to the backstretch by New York Racing Association investigator Juan Dominguez, who ironically is a nephew of the late Laz Barrera, trainer of racing's last Triple Crown winner in 1978, Affirmed. Zito stopped along the way to sign autographs before going back to check on his horse. "Well, they're not booing," he said.

Outside his barn, he was greeted by Gloria Sussman, who claims to be Zito's number one fan, and who had just been released from the hospital. Her incentive was to get to see the Belmont and meet her favorite trainer. In a final bit of irony, Zito later pointed out that his birthday, Feb. 6, is the same as that of former President Ronald Reagan, who died earlier Belmont day.

It was Reagan's death that actually was the first foreboding sign for Smarty Jones, as it meant for the first time during the Triple Crown, Smarty would be kept off the front pages of newspapers and covers of magazines. Had he won, he would have been on the cover of Time magazine.

Also, the weather front, which was supposed to dump a good deal of rain on Belmont all day, split just south of New York and passed harmlessly by to the east and west. If that front had not split and instead hit New York as predicted, they would have sealed the track, and Birdstone would have been scratched, according to Zito.

If there was one thing that Zito was proud of it was the perseverance shown by his entire crew, Whitney and Hendrickson, and of course the little big horse, Birdstone, who perhaps now will be given the respect he has proven he deserves.

"We took a lot of punches in the Triple Crown and we just kept fighting and fighting and fighting," Zito said. "At times, it didn't seem fair, but there was a reason for everything. It was just an incredible turn of events."

For Servis and the entire Smarty Jones crew, there was no reason to hold their heads down. They brought an electricity to Thoroughbred racing rarely seen before. The tidal wave of media coverage they generated swept across the country, picking up everyone in its path and depositing them on a magical, enchanted island.

Some day, some horse will come along and be anointed as the racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner. And with it will come the immortality so many have sought over the past 26 years. But the journey getting there will never equal that of the Smarty Jones odyssey, and for that the Pennsylvania-bred will indeed achieve immortality. Not in the record books, but in the hearts of everyone who came along for the ride.


Leave a Comment:


Great article about a friend from Philadelphia Park, our Smarty Party, our joy and hope for those of us who worked there. and the fact that stamina wins.

Thanks, Steve

10 Jun 2009 4:48 PM

Hi Steve, a fitting tribute!  It's always a pleasure reliving the races through your writing.  Who would've thought at the time that we'd be sitting here today cheering on the Little Man's (or, more appropriately, the Little Big Man's) first offspring in the triple crown races!  I love it.  

10 Jun 2009 4:54 PM

Great article Steve~thanks for posting it again!

10 Jun 2009 5:16 PM

Thanks for the memory Steve.  I was there for the race, and like most sat stunned in the grandstand when Birdstone crossed the finishline first.  Although I wanted to see a Triple Crown, falling in love with Smarty like the rest of county, how could you not smile watching that little horse trot back after such an upset.  And it was Prado, Zito and Whitney for goodness sakes.  Such wonderful representatives of each aspect of the sport, you just had to give the nod.  Well, the "Little Man" has once again surprised us....he ain't so little anymore!

10 Jun 2009 5:18 PM

What a great idea to reprint this article!!  I am sitting here with tears streaming down my face - remembering that whole TC season and that awful day.  Isn't it strange what the racing gods have in store each year.  I have planned to go see Smarty for years now but now I just can't wait to see him again.  What a trip that year was - it was my first trip to Pimlico for the Preakness which I remember as the most unbelievable rush of positive energy I have ever experienced.  The joy that day was as solid and overwhelming as the silence at Belmont 3 weeks later.  Funny - loving Mine That Bird has brought me to forgiveness for Birdstone.  Thanks, Steve.

10 Jun 2009 5:18 PM
Emily W

Wow thank you for putting that up! I almost started crying all over again. haha. I think i have let go of the grudge i used to hold against Birdstone.

10 Jun 2009 5:40 PM

Steve, as much as I thank the racing gods for giving me these wonderful champions to cheer and love, I want to thank the racing gods  for you and your wonderful talent of storytelling.  I don't know if racing writers are as revered as other writers are but I would compare your writing with any other great writer, both contemporary or historic in any other genre.( and this is no lip service.) Thank you for reprinting that piece since when you first printed it, I was probably too upset to enjoy it. It adds to the two Birds' story even more!

10 Jun 2009 6:24 PM

I too was crushed when Birdstone beat Smarty Jones until I read about how Birdstone was treated after the race. It wasn't his fault, he did what he was supposed to do, run.  I planed on going to  BC that year so I could see Smarty Jones only to have him retired before hand.  I went anyway and my sister-in-law and I went to the track at Lone Star at 6:00 A.M. to watch the contenders breeze. I'll never forget seeing Birdstone as he walked by us, his rump was covered with round patches and the people around us were making fun of him, they said he had ring worm. I remember feeling so sorry for him.  It was one of the reasons I was so thrilled when MTB won the Kentucky Derby.  I wanted Birdstone to finally get some respect, and boy has he. Thanks Steve for the re-posting your article.

10 Jun 2009 6:25 PM
Karen in Texas

Thank you for reprinting this article. I did not read it in 2004 because it was too painful to read anything related to that Belmont. There was no dislike of Birdstone, but Smarty's loss was overwhelmingly disappointing. Smarty was very, very special. Maybe Birdstone is going to be as special a sire as Smarty was a runner. He is certainly off to a great start!

10 Jun 2009 6:40 PM

I was routing for Smarty back then but you can't denie it that Birdstone is a great racehorse. I'm overjoyed that his sons are racing and I am big fans. Anyone know of any Smarty colts/fillys that are racing? If you do let me know.

10 Jun 2009 7:05 PM

I remember betting $2 WPS on Birdstone as my little longshot bet.  I always bet that on a longshot through the triple crown races, never know when it will pay off.  Belmont paid off in 04 and trust me I still hear about it from one track regular today.  

I have always been interested in both Birdstone and Smarty Jones as sires and when I saw the two Birds in the Derby I decided since my two faves IWR and QR were out, I would bet two lonshots along with my normal betting.  Birdstone paid me again this year:)  Congratulations to the Birds and all those little guys out there with big hearts.

10 Jun 2009 7:32 PM


Smarty has many horses on the track, and a few are pretty solid runners, but his only stakes winner was in Puerto Rico at this point in time.  His foals have not achieved the level of accomplishment that Birdstone's has at this point.

As a result, I understand that his stud fee has been substantially reduced.  But it only takes one or two breakthrough runners in graded competition - and that could change.

Regardless -he is still the most visited stallion at 3 Chimneys - far outnumbering even those who visit Big Brown.

10 Jun 2009 7:56 PM


Like so many others I am amazed at your writing skills.  Your research and recall of detail and then assembling so much information in an interesting story is magnificent.

I purchased a yearling filly from Birdstone's first crop and in the past, whenever I mention her sire to anyone I've felt I needed to apologize for him when I mention that he beat Smarty in the Belmont.  The word that I have used is that he is "notorious" for beating Smarty, rather than "famous".  I think I'm through apologizing.

10 Jun 2009 8:28 PM

Great story Steve. Ever since the 2004 Belmont, I haven't exactly been a big Birdstone fan, especially since Smarty was my Derby pic since he won the Count Fleet S. I was simply stunned when Smarty lost, since I'd believed he could take the Crown from the beginnig. Of course, I've always felt that had he had a different jockey, a more experienced Belmont jockey that is, he would have won. After all, there are few horses out there that could run those fast fractions in a 1 1/2 mile race and still win.

10 Jun 2009 8:52 PM

Holding a grudge against a dumb animal seems - well a bit d---.

10 Jun 2009 9:04 PM
Julie L.

I was a fan of the little Birdstone and so happy that he has proven his worth at stud. I too had hoped we would see a Triple Crown winner in Smarty Jones but when I knew my little Birdstone was running I knew he would be flying at the end. I was sad for Smarty but so happy for Birdstone. And now to have sired a Kentucky Derby winner and a Belmont Stakes winner from the same crop and it being his first crop makes me beam with pride.

10 Jun 2009 10:22 PM

Great article!  I was a fan of Smarty, and we had a Smarty Party too.  It was wonderful.  Who knew that the little guy who ruined the party would go on to provide us with such joy in 2009!  As for Robert above, you obviously have never owned a horse, much less a TB horse, or you would never make a comment like that.  Horses are not dumb.......they are smarter than most people, and I reckon a whole lot smarter than you!

10 Jun 2009 10:45 PM
Wilde Cheri

Wow, you had to remind me of that awful Belmont day, my mother's last Belmont before she died, when we were so hopeful that Smarty would win the Triple Crown.   I never read your article after that day because it was too painful but now I'm glad I read it.  I'm over my Birdstone grudge.   However, I don't think Smarty was that much larger than Birdstone, they both were two of the smaller horses in the race.   I'd just feel better about Birdstone's win if he had also ran in the Preakness that year.  All 3 TC races are so grueling.

10 Jun 2009 11:45 PM

Hi Steve, great article. Your writings take me back to the days of yore and the great Jim Murrary, when racing was on the front page of the sport section. Loved Little Birdstone, never was a fan of Smarty Jones. Nothing against him but I never rode that band wagon. I loved Rock Hard Ten that year. Didn't click with Mind That Bird this year either, as a matter of fact, I didn't get emotionally attached to any horse in the Derby. Too bad, cause that's part of the Derby experience. Thanks for the memories.

11 Jun 2009 12:15 AM

Another great article, Steve - thanks for running it again. Oh, how I loved Smarty!  After the Belmont I was absolutely deflated like so many others and your article brought it all back. But what a great Triple Crown year this has been! Birdstone was a big part of those emotions back in 2004 - and he's the reason for them again this year. And I'm so happy for Marylou Whitney and Nick Zito -two great representatives of the sport. How proud they must be.

11 Jun 2009 12:22 AM


11 Jun 2009 1:03 AM

ezevans, I was there too and totally crushed.  Steve Haskins describes the feeling well. Still, as you say, it was Zito and it was Mary Lou Whitney.  And it was Edgar Prado.  More gracious victors you couldn't ever ask for, and what a gritty little. A little ironic for me that my most crushing day at the track turned me into a fan of the horse that dealt the blow. I rooted him on and have rooted on Birdstone's offspring ever sine.  So proud of Birdstone, Mine that Bird, and Summer Bird!

11 Jun 2009 1:11 AM
Lady Ruffian

I had watched Touch Gold spoil Silver Charm's chance at the elusive crown... and as silly as it is, I don't know I've ever gotten over how sad I was watching Charm get beat! Though I hold no ill will toward Touch Gold at all, I still wish it was Charm in the Belmont.

When we all saw Smarty Jones' crown also be denied, I really really wondered (still wondering actually) will there ever be a horse so great to win the three races? Birdstone was one gutsy little horse... and I really liked that about him. When Mine That Bird won the KD this year I was furious because I had bet on him in the BC juvenile (i believe he was last) and didn't think he'd beat Pioneer... now I can't stop raving about how wonderful and exciting that little gelding is! I really hope he goes to the BC this year and shows up the way he did in the Derby. Yeaaa Mine That Bird!!

11 Jun 2009 2:53 AM

I remember crying like a baby, mostly because Smarty was the best horse who never won the TC, crying because I had told everyone that the only horse who might last longer was Birdstone, who I never lost faith in.

Later that day I cried even more, because for the first time in my life I actually sent 4 people, including my best friend, to put money on a horse race, Birdstone to win...all 4 people were too embarrassed...

I'm glad I believe the best horse with the best ride of the race that day wins...those racing "gods" are nasty...who needs 'em.

11 Jun 2009 5:57 AM

GayleP, Robert used the word "dumb animal" in a very benign's old-fashioned original meaning was "lacking the power of speech" and implying innocence of the capability of wrong doing...mute people used to be called "dumb" and it had nothing to do with intelligence...over the years ignorant, mocking people turned the term into an insult.

11 Jun 2009 6:17 AM

Mr. Haskin you have such a gift!! As a newcomer to racing(about 6 yrs now)I am constantly amazed how much I am informed of racers past and present when I read your writing. I also couldn't read the Belmont article and now wish I  would have taken the time. Your historical perspective is so wonderful! Thanks!!

11 Jun 2009 6:41 AM

Hi Steve, I loved your article then and I love it even more now. I was a true Birdstone fan and was so sad that he never got any respect when he ran, but I do remember reading this after the 2004 Belmont, and being so appreciative that you were one of the only ones to give him credit for his great win in the Belmont. Your article was so inspiring then, it made me cry, and I am so glad you posted it again. Birdstone's babies winning two legs of the triple crown has been so exciting for me. For once, I am able to read good things about him mostly, but in fact, after the Derby some writers and some of the so call television horse racing experts were contributing Mine That Bird's win to his dame's sire. I guess they will have to look again, because Summer Bird's win in the Belmont proved that Birdstone is one heck of a sire. I have been following his babies, since they started racing at two, and in fact, I asked you what you thought of Mine That Bird's chances in the Breeders Cup, and you answered me nicely saying you thought he had a chance, but I got the feeling you were just being nice.(He came in last, so you were right with your sweet answer, but I still knew he was going to become a good racehorse.) Anyway, if you watch his babies run, two out of every three have that wonderful closing kick their Dad displayed not only in the Belmont, but in his Travers win, so I just thought they were going to prove themselves, I just didn't realize it would be this soon. Reading your article again reminded me of how great it made me feel after that wonderful Little Horse's Belmont win in 2004, the fact that there was one writer out there willing to give Birdstone the respect he so deserved, by writing more about his win and less about Smarty's lose. I have been a fan of yours ever since, and always will be.  Thank You for the great article. I respect your horseracing knowledge, and you are the only one I check before I bet in the big races.(The exception being I bet Mine That Bird in the Derby across the board, and won lots of money, and you didn't have him on your top twelve.LOL) You will always be  very special to me, and reading the article again reminded me as to why.

11 Jun 2009 7:08 AM


Thanks for re-posting this article.

Nobody should ever hold a grudge against a horse win or lose. I think this is a wonderful way to pay tribute to Birdstone who I think up until this point has always been remembered unfairly as a "spoiler". Going forward I for one will be paying a little bit more attention to horses sired by Birdstone. It's incredible to see a first crop sire produce 2 different winners in the 3 yr old classics. It probably won't ever happen again. Thanks again.

11 Jun 2009 8:20 AM

Wow, what a dejevu moment! I bet Reynaldo Abreu was one of the few that was NOT suprised to see his "Big Little Man's" own "Little Man" run off with the Derby, or the "Other Bird" win the Belmont.

11 Jun 2009 8:25 AM

and, as remarkable as Birdstone is in siring two different classic winners from his first crop since Count Fleet, it should still always be noted that TC winner Gallant Fox sired TC winner Omaha from HIS first crop.

11 Jun 2009 8:46 AM
Soldier Course

My heart broke the day Smarty Jones lost the Belmont Stakes, and it has never fully healed. The hold that Smarty had on so many countless fans is a mystery we'll never fully understand. I couldn't read your fine article in 2004, and I had to just skim it now.

For almost five years I have avoided looking at Gainesway's ads for Birdstone on the back cover of The Blood-Horse ... until now. Mine That Bird came along, and he has made it possible for me to become fond of Birdstone as a sire. I can feel some of the sharp edges of my heartache from 2004 smoothing out... a little. I have even thought about ordering a Birdstone hat from HorseHats. Make no mistake, I will always resent him as a racehorse, but I respect him as a sire. In this process I have found some peace.

11 Jun 2009 9:08 AM
R. Rodzos

This was an incredible article!

It certainly made me feel better after reading an upsetting article on ESPN about how the Triple Crown should be changed. This -- this is just so great. Thank you.

11 Jun 2009 9:38 AM
Soldier Course


A number of comments have been submitted throughout the Blog Stable during this year's Triple Crown run about the graciousness of Mary Lou Whitney in expressing her sorrow and regret about Smarty Jones's loss to Birdstone in 2004. I remember her in the Belmont Stakes winner's circle that day, looking vulnerable and apprehensive about the crowd as she spoke. Governor Pataki stood beside her, pleading for the angry fans to behave during the trophy presentation.

Two and a half months later we found out the truth about what was in Ms. Whitney's heart that day. After Birdstone won the Travers Stakes, Ms. Whitney said she was glad he had beaten Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes. I think you wrote the Travers article where her true sentiment was revealed.

I bear no grudge against Ms. Whitney. Who among us could overcome the very human nature of wanting our boy to win? But for Smarty's sake I wanted to set the record straight.

11 Jun 2009 9:45 AM

Well brought tears to my eyes your article as I was Smarty's #1 fan. Whole family went to Woodine that day, had a delicious brunch and settled down to see Smarty win, got a Smarty T-shirt (still have it)and couldn't believe my eyes when that Birdstone went roaring by. Ruined my whole day but you get over these horse racing losses and when Mine That Bird was tearing down the rail in the derby and everyone was saying "Whose that horse" I saw #8 and looked at my program Birdstone, well deja vu all over again.

11 Jun 2009 9:47 AM

I think one of the most satisfying things about MTB and SB wins are that it legitimizes Birdstones win in the Belmont and TRavers.  It is nice to see our classic winners go on to sire other classic winners and that doesnt happen that often. Even Birdstones own sire has not done much, but Birdstone continues that classic winning family.

11 Jun 2009 10:28 AM

My first thought was just to enter "ditto" to the comment made by RGGC regarding my gratitude to the racing gods for your writing as well, but I also want to add my thank you for re-posting this article.  After Smarty's Belmont defeat, which I personally blamed much on the other jockeys for ganging up on him as they did, but now I know that's how they're supposed to ride, I was much too sad to have read this article the first go-round.  Now that I have read it and gained more insight from your perspective into Birdstone, I can try to find a little bit of forgiveness for him.  Yes, I guess I'm one of those people who hold a grudge - haha!  From Mine That Bird's win in the Derby and I began to fall in love with that little horse, the edges of my grudge started to crumble away and now that Summer Bird has emerged as another good runner, I have to admit I'm gaining more and more respect for Birdstone.  I had high hopes for Smarty's babies this year, but for Birdstone to have accomplished two winners of two legs of the TC from his first crop, well that is just beyond high hopes for anyone.  I wish them both great careers at stud and I'm looking forward to more great racing from all the colts, geldings and fillies.  Who says you have to be a big horse to be a big horse?  John Henry was not all that big and from what I've read, neither was Seabiscuit.

Thank you, Steve.

11 Jun 2009 10:35 AM

Reading the article made me cry too.  I was not a huge Smarty fan, but was disapointed he did not win.  Reading that the groom of Birdstone felt really bad when he saw Smarty in the detention barn after with his legs trembling really got to me.  It just shows what great heart these horses have  he gave his all and only lost by a length.  

Only a few horses have truly touched my heart  Secretariat of course and recently Afleet Alex and now Mine That Bird.  I will love them all forever.

11 Jun 2009 10:56 AM

Wow, Steve, if you're right in that no one gave CB a mount the whole week before the

11 Jun 2009 11:09 AM

I was too disappointed in 2004 to read this article- thank you for reposting it as it was a treat to enjoy, now that enough time has passed. One thing it made me think of was one of the segments done this year during the Belmont broadcast- about how trainers want a bigger horse for the longer races. Yet it seems to this fan that the smaller horses (Smarty, Birdstone, MTB) do just fine and at Classic distance and longer.  And they say the little horses stay sounder.  So when do the shortys get their respect?

11 Jun 2009 11:53 AM

again I am so happy about Birdstone I was the only fan in america that was glad he won the Belmont (sorry folks) I always followed that little horse and loved he was a product of the great Whitney bloodlines when race horses were racehorses. I predicted he would be a nice sire and was told sorry too small, again I get to enjoy his success.  I have a photo of him signed by Nick Zito in my home and whenever folks say Something can't be done I take a look at that photo and just smile.  i hope to see many more nice race horses from him. for folks that were unfamaliar with mine that bird i was watching him since his first stakes win in canada soooooo happy for the birdstones and thanks to Marylou Whitney for making this possible with those wonderful Whitney bloodlines of old and to top it off Calvin just made it all a joy to see    

11 Jun 2009 12:20 PM
Steve Haskin

As usual, I thank everyone for your comments. I'm glad you all enjoy looking back as much as I do. Now that the Triple Crown is over, I hope to get back to the historical retrospectives, like last year -- some reprints of old stories, some new. I already have several lined up.

Soldier Course, I changed the wording around in case anyone got the same impression you did, although I don't feel you really got that impression.

11 Jun 2009 12:33 PM

I too wish to thank you for reposting this story of Birdstone, since I wasn't even aware of this site until 2006.  

I too was one of the many thousands cheering for Smarty Jones that Belmont day and was terribly disappointed when a horse named Birdstone defeated him.

What a difference five years can make, huh?  Like father, like son.  Now, thousands of us absolutely adore the little brown horse named Mine That Bird, son of Birdstone.

>He recalls calling Zito and telling him, "He's not very big, but he does everything right, he's training well, and he's very professional."<

Sound familiar, folks?  You bet it does!  Like father, like son.  

11 Jun 2009 12:39 PM
Soldier Course


Forgive me if I'm overlooking something, but I don't understand your comment to me (12:33 pm). What wording did you change around and what wrong impression are you referring to? Before I submiited this comment, I went back and read my 2 previous comments on this thread, but I am still lost. Thanking you in advance for a clarification, Soldier Course

11 Jun 2009 12:50 PM

da3hoss -- I read that also this morning, and find it a bit too increbible to digest (I believe that is what is being put out by their camp, but I don't necessarily buy it).  Would anyone really turn away Calvin Borel if he came to the barn and asked for a mount?  And if that is the case, than what does that say about people's opinion of Calvin's riding abilities at Belmont?  

Would someone in the know kindly explain to me exactly what it is about the detention barn at Belmont that consistently makes the horses crazy?  Is it that they are stuck in an unfamiliar enclosure with their rivals?  And shouldn't this problem be corrected?

Also, I am not sure that Birdstone should be given all the credit for Mine That Bird and Summer Bird... let's not leave out the importance of their two broodmare sires, Smart Strike (sire of Curlin, Fabulous Strike, English Channel)  and Summer Squall of Charismatic fame.  

11 Jun 2009 1:41 PM

Steve... I just got done reading your triple crown wrap can I say this without sounding like a freak....

I love you man!!!! You are just the greatest.

Thanks for keeping it real..everytime and thanks for the "gift" you bring us all on this blog. You are truly "Da man"...

I LOVED Smarty Jones... and I LOVE MTB.... I now have a new found love for Birdstone. I love them all. Big, little, Gray,Bay,Black,young,old,fast, slow...... Really without them, what stories would we have to tell??? Who could we talk about? Who would make our hearts race and our spirits soar???? They all hold a place in my heart. You would think it would be full by now but I can guarantee there is plenty of room for more....Can't wait to meet them.

11 Jun 2009 1:44 PM
Steve Haskin

Soldier, didnt you comment about Gary Stute?

Helsbelles, I  agree it is hard to believe, but I will take their word for it...Horses tend to lose it in the detention barn, epsecially the shippers who are not used to it, because they are used to the quiet of their own barn on race day when they can relax. In the detention barn there are people moving about all day, radios playing on occasion, horses getting Lasix shots etc. If a horse is not used to it it can be very unsettling.

Karen, it's nice to be loved. Thank you.

11 Jun 2009 2:03 PM
Chris B.

Thank you so much for taking us back in time to an event that few realized would resonate so beautifully five years later.  As one reads the comments written in 2004 about Birdstone, fast forward five years later to this year's Derby and comments directed at his small, plain looking son.  History has an amazing way of repeating itself and I don't believe it's an accidental happening.  For all the pain and anguish that Birdstone's victory brought to racing fans that year, the victories by his two sons in this year's classics have turned the painful memories into joy.  Racing fans are reaping the rewards of his improbable victory five years later.  After the catatrophic breakdown of Barbaro in the Preakness, I was unable to watch horse racing and my beloved Derby.  For reasons I can't explain, I turned the race on this year and recaptured my love for the sport and the horses who give their heart and body on the track.  Mine that Bird single handedly reminded me of why I love the triple crown series and the fact that he was Birdstone's son only made me love and respect him more.  Absolutely loved the article I read somewhere about the placement of a dozen roses outside of Birdstone's stall the night his son, "Bird" won his Derby!  This is why we love the horses and the people who devote their lives to the sport.  Would love to see a current article on Ms. Whitney and how the triple crown series this year has changed her life - thanks for capturing the emotions of 2004.

11 Jun 2009 2:07 PM
Soldier Course


Yes, I did ask you about Gary Stute but that particular comment hasn't shown up on this thread, so I did not make any connection between your comment to me and my Stute question.

My question about Gary Stute stemmed from something you had written quite recently about hoping that he'll be back. Again,is he ill? Retired?

Thanks again.  

11 Jun 2009 2:40 PM
For Big Red

STEVE: You wrote, "Now, here he was leading Birdstone, all 900 pounds of him, back to the test barn in front of a stunned and deflated crowd, too drained to pay any attention."

Grin...I remember a couple of Horses of the Year who weren't very big. Do you remember Roman Brother? I think he was around 900 pounds. And, of course, Northern Dancer wasn't a big horse, either.

You know what they isn't size that matters, but performance. Roman Brother was a gelding, but we all know how Northern Dancer performed.  ;-)

Here's a link (sorry, but it's an unusually long one) to info about Roman Brother for folks who may not know about him:

11 Jun 2009 2:49 PM

Steve, thank you for the great wrap-up of the Triple Crown.  Unfortunately, there is so much the racing fans don't know when quick judgments are made regarding Calvin, the trainers, the owners, and the horses.

That is why your professionalism is so important.  Every article you write is patiently awaited by your readers.

It was a very unique Triple Crown with a new twist almost everyday.  Thanks again, for providing us information we would never get otherwise.

11 Jun 2009 3:32 PM
My Juliet

  Steve, thanks for reprinting the great article on a horse that won many hearts. I was fortunate to be one of the thousands who saw Smarty's workout that morning. What an exciting time it was, those weeks leading to the Belmont. The disappointment of the only race he didn't win, for me was equal to that of him not racing past June as a 3 year old. I have heard both sides on here, that he was injured to the point he is the only stallion at Three Chimneys who isn't ridden, and that he was rushed to the breeding shed because of money/greed. I mention this with Smarty Jones because I don't think a horse could have been more loved, or have more fans(okay until the great Barbaro), many who I think were as disappointed as I was. I would like your opinion on this- thank you very much.

11 Jun 2009 4:13 PM
Lee H.

Steve - I'm a fairly new fan. I've been reading your articles for several months now and am impressed how you always seem to tell a story that everyone else overlooked. I always enjoy hearing more about Birdstone, so I especially loved not only this article but several others you've written recently, spotlighting Birdstone. Always a fan of Birdstone, I was fortunate enough to have a chance to breed my first, one and only mare to him last year, & happily got a very nice colt from the breeding.I'm glad I jumped at the chance when it came my way. Thanks for spotlighting him. This Triple Crown series has been amazing, exciting, thrilling for me. Thanks for giving Birdstone the attention and the credit he deserves.

11 Jun 2009 5:32 PM
John T.

Birdstone was no spoiler of Smarty

Jones from winning the Triple Crown

It was his job just like all the other horses in the race to try and beat Smarty and he did.Not only did he beat Smarty Jones to the finish line in the Belmont but he has sired a winner of that race before him also and not only that but a Kentucky Derby winner as well

11 Jun 2009 10:12 PM

What a crushing, dispiriting day at the races that was in 2004 and I had no place to put my resentment. I don't know why I never bore a grudge against Birdstone.  Maybe it was seeing him in the paddock before the race, the size of a mosquito and all spindly. There was something about the jockey antics on Edington and Rock Hard Ten, trying to take out Smarty, and failing, and along comes this little scrawny dude everyone ignored, and he wins (someone from one of the barns told me Birdstone didn't belong in the Belmont but the press wouldn't call it out because it was Zito). Basically I guess if someone had to spoil the party I'm glad it was him. Even then I felt that way. He was no part of the antics in the early running, he was just all heart and ridden by my favorite jockey -- won fair and square and then confirmed himself in the Travers. I've always respected him, that day and ever since.

12 Jun 2009 12:48 AM

For Big Red, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog."

12 Jun 2009 6:55 AM
Karen in Indiana

My Juliet, I went to Three Chimneys last year & saw Smarty (was there to see Big Brown & really took a liking to Sky Mesa). He looked fine and they didn't say anything about not riding him. They did say they don't ride Dynaformer and haven't for years, mainly because Dynaformer decided he didn't want to be ridden. :-) If you are ever able, you should try to go on their tour. The people are very nice and the horses are horses. Smarty had mud all over his face because he'd been out there rolling and having a good ol' time.

Steve, thank you very much for re-posting this. Reading this, it's clear to see where Mine That Bird gets his heart and determination from.

12 Jun 2009 9:30 AM
Joan Kelley

I am disappointed that there was little mention of the great Alydar and his son, Alysheba, in Summer Bird's pedigree.  Quite an oversight, in my opinion

12 Jun 2009 11:41 AM

Here's another interest irony:

Grindstone in 1996 gave the 1990 Kentucky Derby hero Unbridled a first: Grindstone is from his first crop, was his first foal born and was his first offspring to win a race. There was some irony in Grindstone winning this Derby, however, for it was Unbridled’s other son in the race, Unbridled’s Song, who had received the most attention going into the Derby.

As a fan of Grindstone, I sure as heck didn't mind his son defeating Smarty Jones (whose name I've always hated, somewhat turning me off to the horse, as silly as that may seem.  To me that name just does not suit a Triple Crown winner!)

12 Jun 2009 12:05 PM
M-D Kerns

Mr Haskin:

Greetings again (introduced myself to you at Pimlico, on the Friday before this year's Preakness Stakes).

In my mind, this was--& remains, a near-masterpiece of journalism (conjuring up not only the facts but also--& more importantly, the feelings & sense of expectation, excitement, & hope)--which I saved at the time & will once again hit the "email" link to send to my email account for re-reading.

I shall remember more of what you wrote about the Smarty Jones odyssey than I likely will about the odyssey itself.  You rendered the experience...unforgettable.

We exchanged a number of emails during the Smarty Jones odyssey & in those exchanges I met a person (at least part or a side of person) of insight, unusual perspective, & sensitivity.  These interactions--though unnecessary to an appreciation of your work, served to deepen my respect & appreciation.

Though we may disagree about the moral status of non-human animals, including Thoroughbreds, & the Thoroughbred racing industry, I would never allow this disagreement to detract from my appreciation of your talent & ongoing journalistic achievements.

Best wishes.

12 Jun 2009 1:46 PM
Steve Haskin

Thank you so much, M-D. I really appreciate it. I hope you met the whole person in our e-mails. Refresh my memory, what is our moral disagreement?

12 Jun 2009 2:28 PM
My Juliet

   Karen in Indiana, thank you very much for the info. I read an article recently on Smarty being at Three Chimneys, how he  receives many gifts thru the year, and gets more visitors than any other horse there.(I'm glad you were a visitor of Big Brown as well, wouldn't want him to get a complex:)) It sounds like a great place, so glad he is there. Glad to hear he is healthy.

12 Jun 2009 4:08 PM

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