A Crown Denied

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 (gr. I) and 1996 Preakness (gr. I) 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 2:27.50.

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 (gr. I) 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, saying, "You were right."
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 950 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 :48.65 half, jockey Stewart Elliott was forced to send him to the lead on the backstretch in an attempt to escape the kamikaze attacks from the riders of the three main contenders – Rock Hard Ten, Eddington, and Purge. They apparently were on a suicide mission, targeting Smarty Jones at the expense of their own mounts. Their tactics forced Smarty into a gut-wrenching third quarter in :22.91, followed by another testing quarter in :23.68 around the far turn.

By the time Smarty 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 2:00.52, which would have won every Kentucky Derby but four. And this was a horse who had been given 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 Road., while an unmarked police car tucked in behind the van. At the tollbooth for the Pennsylvania Turnpike, all the toll takers 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!" People even gathered on a grassy hill behind a turnpike rest area just to watch Smarty go by. 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 (gr. II) at Keeneland; and Robert LaPenta's The Cliff's Edge, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) and Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) 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, then finished a troubled third in the Florida Derby (gr. I), a race Zito felt he should have won. Eurosilver, after winning a soft allowance race, was defeated in the Swale Stakes (gr. II) the same day as the Florida Derby. After being forced to miss the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) 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, then floundered over a sealed track at Turfway Park in the Lane's End Stakes (gr. II), 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, he 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 (gr. I). 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 kept him out of the Preakness and would prevent him from running in the Belmont, that left Birdstone and Royal Assault, who won the Sir Barton Stakes on Preakness day, as Zito's two hopes against Smarty Jones in the Belmont. 

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 (gr. II) 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, Mrs. 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 hadn’t done much growing over the winter. "I just can't understand it," Zito 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 before the Belmont. "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 remained, 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 the massive throng gathered outside Smarty's barn, and the path to the track leading right past the barn, Zito elected to keep Birdstone away from the madness and sent him and Royal Assault to the training track. Again, 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, Edgar Prado’s agent, Bob 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 was sent off the 3-10 favorite, with Rock Hard Ten at 6-1 and Purge at 9-1. Rock Hard Ten, as he did before the Preakness, acted up behind the gate, lashing out several times. He finally decided to go in after jockey Alex Solis dismounted and he was blindfolded. The start was clean, with the exception of Royal Assault, who had to check when Rock Hard Ten came out in his path. 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 blazing-fast track were tame enough, but the tempo picked up noticeably when Bailey 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, some three to 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 got him to the lead. But it took a brutal third 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 horses (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide) recently strewn just below the summit of racing's most elusive peak.

In the stands, people were crying. Even Mrs. 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 a backstretch gate near the clubhouse turn. 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 that for the first time during the Triple Crown, Smarty would be kept off the front pages of newspapers and covers of magazines. Time magazine had already reserved the cover for Smarty, but that was scrapped with the announcement of Reagan’s death.

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, Mrs. 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 sent ripples of electricity throughout Thoroughbred racing rarely seen or felt before. The tidal wave of media coverage they generated swept across the country, picking up everyone in its path and depositing them on some magical, enchanted island.

Some day, some horse will become 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.

73 Comments

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Citation1948

2004 was the first year I watched the triple crown races. Everyone knows Smarty, but the story of Birdstone is also an important part. And with his impressive offspring this year, maybe we'll start to look back and realize we missed something special in overlooking him.

15 Dec 2009 8:40 PM
txhorsefan

At one time, I used to think I had a pretty good vocabulary, but now that I've finished reading this recap, all I can think of is Wow.  You have brought so much life to this story and re-reading it still recalls all those emotions, the heartbreak, when Smarty did not become our twelfth Triple Crown winner.  I was so sure he would take it!  For years, I have blamed the jockeys who appeared to be gunning for Smarty, but I realize that is what they are supposed to do - to try to win the race.  Jerry Bailey described it well in his book, but back then, I was still bitter.  :)  Even though Smarty Jones did not win the TC that year, at least he drew me deeper into racing because after the Belmont, I kept on following, kept on reading the online magazines to find out where he would race next, what Smarty Jones was going to do.  I discovered there was such a thing as Breeders Cup races and they were going to be at *my* track that year, so I was hoping to go to be able to see Smarty Jones in person.  Your writing, Steve, giving the background stories on these horses, their connections, you were a big part of this, so again...I say thank you.  My husband maybe not so much - he gets tired of having to watch so much TVG and HRTV!  He loves to repeat the comment, "I bet the brown horse wins."  Such a comedian!  Thank you!

15 Dec 2009 8:48 PM
DB

Summer Bird looked remarably like his Dad when he was closing in on the leaders in this year's Belmont

15 Dec 2009 9:13 PM
Lil Darlin

Ah, Little Birdstone, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, "I get no respect!"  And it looks like your sons this year are following in your footsteps in more ways than one.  I'm sure their owners don't mind winning all those races and all that money without the pressures of the pre-race media storms.

I didn't have Mine That Bird in the Derby, but I did have Summer Bird in the Belmont.  Luckily, the 2004 Belmont was and will always be fresh on my mind, and there was no way I was overlooking the overlooked son of Birdstone (fool me once...)

Thanks for posting these articles, Steve. You are a constant reminder of why I love racing so much.

15 Dec 2009 9:57 PM
Karen in Indiana

Birdstone is having a good start at being much more respected in the stud barn than he was on the track. It appears he passes on that heart and will to win.

I've seen Smarty at Three Chimneys when I've been there. He loves the mud - plays in it and rolls in it. And he loves the attention of his fans.

15 Dec 2009 11:27 PM
Deacon

Excellent reading Steve as always. Brdstone was the spoiler that day and Zito was a villan. The best horse lost because of argueably the worst ride in Triple Crown history. Stephen Elliot at best is a journeymans jockey and he had no business getting the mounts on Smarty Jones during that campaign. You get one shot at immortality. Yeah I know other jockeys have made some blunders in Triple Crown races, Shoemaker on Gallant Man, Shoemaker again on Hill Rise when he get the horse going way to late to catch Northern Dancer. I think Real Quiet lsot the Belmont due to bad judgement as well by Desormeaux. Smarty Jones was America's horse, he was so loved. It is true when they say that the Belmont Stakes is a graveyard of champions............

16 Dec 2009 2:39 AM
Scottish Racing

It was my first and only visit to a US triple crown race although I have been to a few BC's. What a day! You could feel the atmosphere starting to build up on the LIRR from Penn to the track. More and more people piled into Belmont just waiting on the King being crowned. He couldn't be beaten. 'It had been 26 years, there was only one furlong to go'.

A very surreal day as I remember President Reagan died that day so there were a whole lot of emotions going on. It was just too watch for some folks when 'Birdstone won the Belmont Stakes'. There were people who were distraught.

Getting back to Manhattan was something else. The train station was packed and only good huomour kept it from boiling over.I think we eventually got back to Penn Station at 10:00. What a day! I'll never forget it.

16 Dec 2009 4:10 AM
Kevin J.

A Crown Lost ? A Crown stolen is more like it! as far as I'm concerned Smarty Jones is the 12th winner of the Triple Crown. A very dark day in the history of horseracing. The people that were involed in the 2004 Belmont who's sole intention was to deny Smarty Jones his victory are to never be forgotten for their display of unsportsman like conduct! Long live the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones.

16 Dec 2009 6:20 AM
Ernie

Incredible moments:

"Abreu was saddened when he saw Smarty's legs literally trembling from exhaustion."

"...he found himself stranded with a horse that needed water and to relax after his grueling trip."

16 Dec 2009 6:48 AM
Amy

Steve,

I learn so much from you. Your writing brings to life horse racing.

Birdstone will now get his due. His first crop of foals are proving, once again, his profound impact in the world of horseracing. Not only did we have one of the most memorable races in history, with Mine That Bird (who I fell in love with, small, plain brown guy that he is, with the heart of a lion), but Summer Bird, who peaked a little later, and has blistered his way through amazing races! I am now on the maiden watch of Bet Your Boots, and plan to follow as many Birdstone babies as I can.

Yes, If I had money, I would be taking my mares to Birdstone.

Your story is perfect: it reminds us of the Smarty magic, that amazing colt, but also reminds us of the fates of the gods, and the difficulty of the Triple Crown.

16 Dec 2009 8:08 AM
Jennie

Game little Birdstone had the last laugh that day at Belmont ... and is having the last laugh on Smarty in the breeding shed, too.

16 Dec 2009 8:27 AM
Tom

Thanks for the great article, Steve.   Brought back many happy and sad thoughts.   Smarty was my derby horse as a 2yo and so needless to say I was crushed by the Belmont outcome.   I've alway blamed Stuart for getting him into a speed duel with his rivals, but how would he know what Smart's limitations were, having never lost and crushing all comers to date.  Oh well, that's racing and it was a GREAT effort by Smarty, whom I visit yearly at Three Chimneys.   At least the Smarty lesson taught me to laugh at the hype that Big Brown was a lock to win the Belmont.  People have short memories.   Keep up the great work!

16 Dec 2009 8:46 AM
da3hoss

I was a Birdtown fan, so I appreciated Birdstone as a 2 year-old...I figured he would mature later in his 3 year old season...when I saw Smarty in the Southwest stakes, I knew he was the Derby winner for sure...

When the Belmont came along with all the talk of Smarty being a target my only comment was no one could beat him, but if he was pressed the entire race there was only one horse with the efficient running style of his sire that could outlast Smarty down that looong Belmont stretch....I sent FOUR friends to the track with instructions to put a win bet on Birdstone...(and obviously on Smarty) and NOT ONE did it...they said they were too embarrassed...

ACK!!

16 Dec 2009 8:52 AM
texaszippeee

I had never bet on a horse race before and bet on Smarty to win the Belmont.  I just knew he would win.  I was so upset when he lost, not because of the bet, but because he was so special.  

Little Birdstone proved himself not only with the Belmont, but also with sons Mine That Bird and Summer Bird.

16 Dec 2009 9:15 AM
Coldfacts

Sire: Birdstone : This former Belmont winner is off to a flying start and appear to pass on a lot of stamina in his offspring’s. Stamina is one of the most important commodities for the Triple Crown. Both Mine That Bird and Summer Bird showed no shortage of this commodity.

Dam: Slew Smarts is an unraced daughter to TC winner Seattle Slew. I have long regarded unraced & lightly mare as the best producers of classic winners. One does not have to look very far to see validation of my views.  Preakness winner & HOY Curlin (Dam Unraced); Kentucky Derby & Preakness winner Big Brown (Dam 2 Starts)  Derby winner & Preakness runner up Mine That Bird (Dam unraced) There is something more appealing than this colt unraced dam. His third dam was sired by Caro the sire of Winning Colors one of three fillies to win the Kentucky Derby. The fourth dam is even better she is none Kentucky Oaks winner Silent Beauty.

Dam Sire – TC winner Seattle Slew: Only one of his mare to date have produced a winner he has sire one

Steve, I know most of your piece is centered on Smarty Jones but I do believe diminutive colt Birdstone was a worthy winner. His winning time (2:27.50) represents the second fastest in the last 10 years with only Point Given recording a better time.

When Birdstone’s son Mine That Bird came to my attention as the Canadian Champion 2YO I did some research on him. I realized that he was similar to Birdstone in three areas. I discovered he was just a small, he was also a May foal and he was a brilliant 2YO. I did a thread recommending him as a live long shot for the 2008 Breeder Cup Juvenile. Well MTB ran last. It is interesting to note that two sons of Birdstone won two legs of the Triple Crown in a fashion similar to his Belmont victory. They both closed late and at big prices.

Birdstone is part of what can be considered to be Unbridled’s dynasty. He stated it with his Derby victory. He then sired Derby victor Grindstone who in turns sires Belmont winner Birdstone. Birdstone is the sire Derby and Belmont winners Mine That Bird and Summer Bird. The dynasty cannot be continued by MTB as he is a gelding. However, Summer Bird the better of the two colts seem to have all the credentials of a potential to class stallion.

Birdstone defeated Smarty Jones in the Belmont as an overwhelming underdog and it appears he is doing the same thing in the breeding shed. Their respective stud fees subject to correction are $10,000 and $100,000 respectively. Base on what appears to be the developing dynasty cited above these fees should be reversed.

16 Dec 2009 10:00 AM
Shelby's Best Pal

The silence of the huge Belmont crowd at the conclusion of the race is something that sticks with me.  I haven't been back to the Belmont since then but have a feeling I'll be there this year.  Just have a good feeling about this year.

16 Dec 2009 10:11 AM
90Proof

Steve!  Do you remember the scolding of Mike Battaglia from Zito over Birdstone after releasing the Morning line for the Ky Derby?  He got into him pretty good Live on ESPN.

16 Dec 2009 10:21 AM
GailG

I too loved Smarty Jones.  I was positive he would win the triple crown.  I always felt his defeat was a conspiracy against his winning the triple crown.  I have long believed only the horses who competed in each of the three triple crown races should be eligible to run against each other in the Triple Crown pursuit.

16 Dec 2009 10:26 AM
jamesb

I will never forget that day.  

In a last minute decision, my wife and I decided to celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary by going to Belmont and seeing history made.

This was the first Triple Crown race either of us had ever attended in person. Even though she rode horses as a young girl, I had no experience with horses or horse racing at the time.

I guess you could say fortunately for me my contacts dried out and I was forced to remove them just prior to the race.  Even standing on a bench (I remember my wife getting more and more mad at me as I kept making room for more people) I couldn't see much and she had to call the race for me.  Without my contacts, I have to navigate by sonar.  lol

The smile her face as she said "He's gonna do it.  He's gonna do it." is etched in mind.  As is the way it melted away as she said "He's gonna get caught."

I couldn't believe it.  Especially when they said Birdstone.  The silence that overcame Belmont was eerie.

But we still saw history I guess, and the experience of being there has led us to attend the Preakness every year since.  And Keeneleand's spring and fall meets the last couple of years.

Not the result I wanted, but I have great memories of that weekend.

16 Dec 2009 10:31 AM
Slew

As much as I wanted to see another

Triple Crown winner, especially a Penna bred, that day, my heart was really with Rock Hard Ten.

And coldfacts:  I don't know if it's your grammar or the gist of your statement. "TC winner Seattle Slew: Only one of his mare to date have produced a winner he has sire one"...Seattle Slew was a top sire,

and was the dam sire to Cigar, sire to AP Indy, sire to Vindication, and his line follows I Want Revenge and Friesen Fire.  The list goes on and on..so I have to ask "one what?".  There have been no Triple Crown winners since Affirmed....but there have been many Triple Crown races won by Slew's progeny including Rags to Riches...and what about Lava Man?

16 Dec 2009 10:47 AM
MonicaV

I was positive Smarty would win the TC.  Positive and if a fresher Birdstone had not been in the race, he would have.  Smarty was used a little too early and finished well.  I've never been more disappointed at the outcome of a race.  Well, I was pretty disappointed when Sunday Silence lost the Belmont but not nearly as disappointed when Smarty did.  I still love Smarty Jones and he's still a TC winner to me.  Just adore that boy!

16 Dec 2009 10:53 AM
Soldier Course

jamesb:

I have not read Steve's recap because I can't, but I have read the posts here, including yours. I have a similar memory about my father from that awful moment.

We were standing in front of the television. Smarty had held off Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, and it looked like he was going to make it.

My father said, "He's got it." I quickly looked over at him, in shock because he was never a person to make a call about something unless he was absolutely sure. He nodded. I looked back at the screen, and my knees began to buckle when I saw Birdstone. My father didn't say a word when the race was over. I knew he was stunned. I was hysterical.  

16 Dec 2009 11:00 AM
Lupe Aranda

Awesome! Powerful!  What else can I say? Thank you, Steve, thank you for your faithfulness in TELLING THE STORY...you have become the Race Horse's TRUE STORY TELLER...lest it be forgotten...

A horse lover in Texas - Lupe

PS How can I copy your article without having to copy the comments, please?

16 Dec 2009 11:01 AM
Dixiebandfan

Simply beautifully written, thank you Steve!

16 Dec 2009 11:10 AM
LAZMANNICK

I think that Smarty was ganged up on in the Belmont.....I remember thinking while they were in the clubhourse turn and moving towards the baskstretch that they were going to hound him all the way, even if it meant they didn't win the race.  If he would have had the same lead in the stretch without being pushed like he was earlier, he would have won, easily.

As far as Elliott, he was over matched for a race like the Belmont and has proven that in the years since.

Someone said that Hill Rise received a bad ride in the Derby and would have caught Northern Dancer if he had moved sooner.....I was always under the impression that they could have gone around again and Hill Rise wouldn't have gotten past him.  He proved his class again by easily winning the Preakness and if anyone got a questionable ride, it was the Dancer in the Belmont.  He should have been allowed to go when he wanted to go instead of being chocked back.

With regards to Real Quiet.....he was at the line the same time as Victory Gallop.  It was Vitory Gallop who won the race given his charging finish rather than Real Quiet losing it.....I also heard that even if Real Quiet would have finished first his number would have come down because of interference.  What a controvery that would have been.

16 Dec 2009 11:11 AM
Pankov

I will never forgive Jerry Bailey (on Eddington) or Alex Solis (on Rock Hard Ten) for what they did to Smarty! I still cannot watch a replay of that race. Even the thought of it makes me sick to my stomach. I understand the concept of race riding and have no problem with it, but that is not what these jocks were doing at all! They weren't riding to give their horses a chance to win, they were riding to get Smarty beat, period! It is one of the most unprofessional, classless things I have ever seen on a racetrack. Jerry Bailey moved out five wide and was using his whip on the backstretch to press Smarty with a mile left to run in a 12 furlong race! Disgraceful! Bailey is a coldhearted glory hound who didn't want any horse winning a Triple Crown if he didn’t have the mount! Even with all the great horses Jerry Bailey rode in his career and all the great races he won, whenever I hear his name the ONLY thing that comes to my mind is the 2004 Belmont! Quite a legacy to leave behind!

16 Dec 2009 11:22 AM
Donna Melendez

Steve,   Thanks for the great article; you are a genius and I look forward to reading everything you write!!!  

16 Dec 2009 11:57 AM
Gary

Not knocking Birdstone but he benefitted on a rough trip that was forced upon the situation and Smarty. The disappointment is we'll never know how truly great Smarty probably was. In my mind he was the best we had seen since Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. The knock that it was a weak year is so unwarrented. Rock hard ten and Lion heart were as noble as most foes in the other years and the degree of victory in the derby and preakness proved he was far above them. Coupled with an early retirement puts Smarty in the books with company of Majestic Prince where we'll never know how great the great was.  

16 Dec 2009 12:04 PM
GreyK

Thanks for bringing back this memory of a heart-stopping race.  I listened to the race with three friends on a car radio in the parking lot of the Victoria, British Columbia airport and we frightened a few passing pedestrians with our anguished groans at Smarty's defeat.  I didn't actually see the race until a couple of years later.  The racing gods look down and laugh at us.    

16 Dec 2009 12:18 PM
Sarava

I find it equally ironic that Da'Tara was a Zito horse.  Zito couldn't beat Big Brown with Anak Nakal in the Derby, or with Stevil in the Preakness, but that Belmont was his...as upset as everyone was (myself included) at seeing Brown's Triple Crown bid spoiled, I admit I have a lot of respect for him because of his Belmont wins.  Thanks again for the great blog, Steve -- it really sheds light on Birdstone and gives him the credit he deserves.  It isn't easy to outrun a hero.

16 Dec 2009 12:18 PM
MRO

I love Birdstone, and I absolutely loved reading your article about him. I was screaming & jumping up & down when he passed Smarty before the wire. I hadn't been that excited over a race in years, and I'm usually one to get pretty worked up when they're coming down the stretch. What a mighty little guy. Even looking at his confirmation photo amazes me. He has the shortest back legs I have ever seen, and one can barely see him over the fence in the Blood-Horse video posted recently. Yet, he was an incredible race horse & hopefully will continue to be a major sire. I'll certainly be keeping an eye on his offspring on the track. Thanks for helping me to relive the day. Good memories!

16 Dec 2009 12:20 PM
Karen2

Steve..you are da man...Thanks for the incredible re-cap..and the painful memories LOL...

With all due respect to Birdstone..the best horse did not win that day. That is my opinion. For Smarty to hold on the way he did was far more of an impressive race than what Birdstone put together. Sure, he beat Smarty at the wire but he didn't dance the dances the way Smarty did. Smarty had the test of all three TC races and he still had the heart to shake off the imposing 17 hand Rock Hard Ten. Keep in mind Smarty, as well as Birdstone, are both very small horses. Birdstone was fresh and rested. I agree that Smarty was robbed of the triple crown. Then as fans, we were robbed by his early retirement.

Now take it easy on me as I am a Birdstone fan. I love what he has accomplished in the breeding shed and believe he ran the race of his life that day.  I hope we see many good things from him. Smarty isn't finished yet though. Stay Tuned...

16 Dec 2009 12:27 PM
Soldier Course

Pankov:

I think Gary Stevens was on Rock Hard Ten.

I agree with you about the motivation of those two jockeys. It could never be proved because of the ambiguity of the circumstances. They would always defend themselves by saying they were riding to win. But I don't think they were. And that's what was so heartbreaking for Smarty.

16 Dec 2009 12:31 PM
LACS70

The best horse won that day, plain and simple. Birdstone has passed his tenacity and grit on to the "Bird Brother" - Mine That Bird and Summer Bird - in full measure. When MTB won the KY Derby, I looked up his pedigree, and then watched the race replay. I thought,"WOW! That is definately Birdstone's Boy!" And, though I thought MTB would win the Belmont this year, to see SB win just made the Birdstone's win against Smarty even more justified.  

16 Dec 2009 12:31 PM
Cgriff

Geez....still so many bitter fans after all this time!

Of course - it took me 20 years to appreciate Allen Jerkins after he took it to Secretariat twice with Onion and Prove Out - so who am I to judge?

I was there that day - it was a real let down - but that's horseracing.  And what a cool horse Birdstone has turned out to be!  His win in the Travers sealed his record as a true runner.  And he's really knocking it out of the park as a sire!  Wait til he starts getting more of the top mares!

Great things come in small packages, after all!

Thanks for the memories, Steve.

16 Dec 2009 12:33 PM
Soldier Course

Lazmannick:

I am not disagreeing with you, but I can't reconcile a couple of your points. You acknowledge that Smarty was hounded on the backstretch. You said that if that had not happened, he would have won. Then you seem to be blaming Stewart Elliott for Smarty's loss.

What did Stewart do wrong? He had to get way from Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, didn't he? It wasn't Stewart's fault that those other two horses bore down on Smarty.  

16 Dec 2009 12:42 PM
Mike

Like most people I was hoping for a Triple Crown winner that year and hated to see Smarty lose and I sure didn't expect Birdstone to be the one to beat him. But I got to see Birdstone later in the Travers and he is now one of my favorite horses. I will never forget that Travers with the storm coming and then the rain pouring down just after Birdstone crossed the finish line. It is great to see that he is becoming a very good sire.

16 Dec 2009 1:01 PM
Steve Haskin

Thanks everyone, I'm glad these recaps are stirring up the memories -- good and bad.

Lupe, just cut and paste the story right from the page on to Microsoft Word. This way you can avoid the comments.

90 Proof, I didnt see that. I was in Kentucky and didnt catch the TV show. Zito normally is very restrained on TV.

16 Dec 2009 1:02 PM
Virgil Fox

The bitter and the sweet.

Thanks again Steve.

- Peace

16 Dec 2009 1:43 PM
Dollar Bill

A question for those who have seen him in the flesh: is Birdstone really all of 15.3 as the Stallion Register says, which is, granted, not tall, but not diminutive either, or is that an (ahem) typo?

16 Dec 2009 1:58 PM
Mary

Every Triple Crown hopeful gets tested in the Belmont.  Lest we forget Sham and his jockey Pincay tried their best to deny Secretariat.  But Secretariat had the sheer talent, blazing speed AND stamina to take Sham (and everyone else in that field) out behind the woodshed.  

So please bitter Smarty fans, stop with the "Smarty was robbed" meme.  If he were a true great like the other TC winners, he would be standing with them today regardless of how the other jockeys rode.    

And please spare us the "testing fractions" excuse.  The Belmont was run in 2:24 flat on June 9, 1973.  And it was won by the horse than ran the first 3/4 mile in 1:09 and change and the first 10 furlongs in 1:59 flat and as the close to his grueling TC campaign to boot.  I rest my case.  

16 Dec 2009 2:09 PM
LAZMANNICK

Soldier Course

I admire your defending Stewart Elliott, but I am not the only one on this blog who was not impressed with his Belmont ride.  This was one of the biggest races all time.....anytime you go for a Triple Crown win it is a huge race, but this was even bigger than most because of the declining popularity of the sport and the large following that Smarty had.  Not once during the race did Stewart give Smarty a breather.  He pushed the horse too hard and for too long.  There was no need to panic because RHT and Eddington were pressing him early on.  He beat RHD by 11-1/2 and Eddington by almost 14L in the Preakness so why take up the challenge when there was still at least a mile to go?  If you notice, the jock on RHT backed off for a period in the race and then came back on again, but it didn't work.  The horse just wasn't good enough to defeat Smarty which Stewart should have known.  If you watch the replay you can see Stewart turn his head and look back a couple times when they were turing into the stretch.  This wasn't because he figured he had a lot of horse left and had the race won.  To me it looked like he knew it was going to be a struggle and that's what happened when Smarty suddenly ran out of gas.

I have always been a fan of Stewart, but I realize that he is simply not a big time jockey.  His performance in recent years I think bears that out.  If anything, he should have progressed into the upper echelon of jockies after that season but he didn't, which is too bad.

16 Dec 2009 2:15 PM
Zookeeper

After reading another "gem  of turf writing", I watched a replay of the 2004 Belmont for the first time since watching the actual race. I thought that after more than 5 years I would  be less emotional... no great success there: I still cried the whole length of the stretch. What he lacked in size, Smarty made up in heart. He will remain one of my very favorites, always.

What I was able to do, this time, was to appreciate Birdstone's success and the smart ride of Edgar Prado who stayed out of the early rounds and saved his horse for the final knockout.

Soldier Course, I think you should read Mr. Haskin's recap. It's one of his best and does great justice to both horses. Surely, if I can stand watching the race again, you can read Steve's article. You won't be sorry. It is THAT good!

16 Dec 2009 2:18 PM
LAZMANNICK

Mary

Good point, but you are talking about Secretariat.  Birdstone's time in the race I believe was the fastest since Point Given in 2001 and you have to go back to Tobasco Cat in 1994 for another faster Belmont.  Smarty Jones didn't run extremely fast fractions early on but they were solid and he ran the 1-1/4M in 2.00.3 which would have won approximately 98% of all Kentucky Derbys.  The race was pretty fast and yes, Smarty had it tough earlier on because he didn't get a breather and was running hard throughout until he ran out of gas......You're right, he didn't get robbed.  It was more like ganged up on.

16 Dec 2009 2:31 PM
Lou

Smarty Jones ran one of the best races you'll ever see in defeat.  Ran by far the best race and was by far the best horse in the race but that's racing.  I agree about the jocks.  Just a shame he couldn't stick around to prove himself to be one of the greats which I believe he would have.  

16 Dec 2009 2:44 PM
Pankov

Soldier Corse:

Gary Stevens did ride Rock Hard Ten in the Preakness, but he was riding races in England the weekend of the Belmont and was unavailable. Solis picked up the mount on RHT for the Belmont.

16 Dec 2009 3:15 PM
ALB

I watched it live back in 2004 & I just had to watch the 2004 Belmont again, and I really think that Smarty would have made it, if it wasn't for a really bad ride by Stewart Elliot. I'm just a fan & even I know that the Belmont stretch is L O N G!!!! Can't believe how Birdstone is a very small horse just like Mine that Bird. Wow, thanks for the memories, can't wait until you post more!

16 Dec 2009 4:05 PM
Karen2

Laz...you are doing a good job defending your posts so I don't need to help you. I agree with you 150%.... It is clear to see what happened to Smarty that day. I'm not sure why people bring up Secretariat. We aren't comparing here. We are talking about Smarty's race. I woudldn't say we are "bitter" Smarty fans. I would say we recognize greatness when we see it. Where was Birdstone in the derby? How about the Preakness?  Furthermore, Birdstone and Smarty were 8 lengths ahead of everyone else. He lost by a length to a fresh horse. He fought to the end. Read the line about his legs trembling. Smarty left his heart on that track. That is greatness.

16 Dec 2009 4:32 PM
Pankov

Why are we even bringing up Secretariat? I have found that it is best to not even mention Secretariat's name when discussing horse racing. He was in another stratosphere and no horse should be compared to him, and no race in which he ran should be compared to any other race EVER. I wish everyone else would do the same! What Secretariat did in the Belmont was other worldly so there is no point in comparing it to any other running of the Belmont. So I’m starting the petition now to keep Big Red’s name out of our conversations totally. It’s a disgrace to him to even be mentioned in the same breath as these mere mortals!

16 Dec 2009 5:31 PM
TexSpect

Steve, truly another great and colorful description of the Rise of Birdstone in defeating Smarty Jones in the 136th running of the Belmont Stakes. Yet found in the story was relevance to the present. Quote "Smarty Jones was sent off the 3-10 favorite, with Rock Hard Ten at 6-1 and Purge at 9-1. Rock Hard Ten, as he did before the Preakness, acted up behind the gate, lashing out several times. He finally decided to go in after jockey Alex Solis dismounted and he was blindfolded." Sorry this procedure did not work for Quality Road in this years Breeders Cup. It just shows that what works for one horse does not necessarily work for another. Too bad we can't interview the horses to ask what works for them. The gate crew at Santa Anita is one of the best in the business and did not deserve the outrage of the incident concerning Quality Road. Yet, these are some of the built in factors for losing and non-starters in races..........Excuses.

16 Dec 2009 5:40 PM
TexSpect

I was not going to write anything else, but I could not get these points off of my mind. You have to be older than 65 years of age to witness the many personal heartbreaks of favorite horses that failed to win the races that you thought they should have. With jockey tactics and plenty of track buffonery, the best horse does not always get to the wire first. If the best always won, we would not have odds in the parimutuels. It makes for great arguements as to what could have been. The bottomline is, That is Horseracing!

16 Dec 2009 6:02 PM
Deborah

What a great article!  I still cry when the defeat of Smarty Jones is recalled.  Smarty is still my favorite living thoroughbred! His story with all the connections is a real American dream come true.

Deborah

16 Dec 2009 6:32 PM
Rita

Steve just wonderful writing and stories. You put so much feeling in your articles it just like we are living it now. I watched it on t.v. but this seems even more exciting. I was sad Smarty lost but we'll never forget him for the true champion he is so much heart.Hope to see him one day. Thanks for the memories Steve.

16 Dec 2009 6:32 PM
anne

I was there at Belmont Park when Smarty lost and also wanted to cry. He is always in my heart and one of my favorites. However, Zito deserved to finally get a Belmont.

16 Dec 2009 7:02 PM
Soldier Course

To all here who would have called us "bitter" about Smarty Jones, you are wrong. We are aggrieved. There is a difference.

Karen2 is right. We recognized greatness when we saw it. Smarty deserved to be our 12th Triple Crown winner.

16 Dec 2009 8:23 PM
LAZMANNICK

Karen2

In this decade there were several horses that I felt like I was living and dying when they ran......Ghostzapper, Funncide, Curlin, Zenyatta and Smarty Jones (I'll probably feel the same way about Rachel next year, though not this year)......I was always so UP when they ran and felt really deflated when they lost (Curlin in the Derby, and Smarty and Funncide in the Belmont) because those were legacy races, the ones that if you win, given the situation, put you on a pedestal above everything else......The two defeats that got to me the most were Smarty's and Funnycide's.  Seeing Smarty try so gallantly, questioning the tactics of the other jocks, then watching him slip away when he turned into the stretch, as Tevor would say.....looking like a winner.....and then the anguish when his stride shortened.....the will to win was still there but the physical ability was gone.....was enough to make anyone cry.  He was as honest as they come.  I really don't blame Elliott.  I just think the moment was too big for him.  He probably got the mount because he was the leading jock at Philly Park and when Smarty continued to win he managed to stay with him.  I truely thought that Stewart would emerge from that point on, but it goes to show you how tough the sport is, especailly mentally.  Still, to this day, whenever Elliott is on a horse I always give it a little longer look.  LOL

16 Dec 2009 8:30 PM
Soldier Course

Pankov:

Sorry about my mistake re the jockey on Rock Hard Ten in the Belmont. Clearly it was Alex Solis. Thanks.

Lazmannick:

I appreciate your response. But ... you want me to watch the race again? I can't.

16 Dec 2009 8:30 PM
Paula Higgins

The day Smarty Jones lost I thought my heart would break for his owners. But I also realized he ran one hell of a race and was indeed the best horse there. He is one of my all time favorites. Birdstone is also a wonderful horse. It was sad that no one was happy for him because of Smarty's loss. But understandable. I am glad Birdstone is finally getting some recognition for his offspring.

16 Dec 2009 9:30 PM
robinm

I was a huge fan of Smarty after watching him race late in his 2 yr old year (or maybe early at 3) - the first time I saw him I told my husband "Smarty Jones is my Derby horse".  Anytime a horse I really love is running in a big race, I set up the VCR and walk away.  The day of the Belmont, I went out to the barn just before the start, and a few minutes later my step-daughter came out to tell me Smarty had lost!  I confess I thought she was just "jerking my chain" and didn't believe it.  When I asked her "who won?" she said the couldn't remember the name but she thought it was horse #3.  Then I really didn't believe it!  Later I remember reading Steve Haskin's article in the Blood Horse and was absolutely devistated by the comment about how rubber-legged Smarty was after the race.  Remember, he's a little horse too; not much taller than Birdstone and not built as stoutly.  It really wasn't fair that he ran his heart out but still lost his chance at immortality.  I take nothing away from Birdstone and he sure is proving to be a very good sire, but as a race horse, Smarty was superior.  It was a sad set of circumstances that got him beat that day.

16 Dec 2009 10:20 PM
Jodie

I personally don't think we will ever see another Triple Crown Winner, but what Horse Racing needs more than anything is another Triple Crown Winner.  Absolutely nothing generates more interest or excitement in Horse Racing.

16 Dec 2009 11:10 PM
Freetex

Again, a marvelously written story of winning and defeat.

It was hard to handle watching Smarty lose the Belmont.  But in your words, I can so appreciate the little Bird and of course, Smarty.

Thank you.

17 Dec 2009 2:43 AM
OldDog

Thanks for this tremendous account, Steve.  I'm going to share it with several of my friends who have only recently become enthusiasts.  

17 Dec 2009 10:00 AM
Steve Haskin

Afleet Alex's Preakness will be posted later this afternoon. Gotta keep 'em coming to fit in as many as possible.

17 Dec 2009 10:11 AM
gw_bushwacker

Nice article Steve. For me that day will be remembered only as the day that Smarty Jones was denied a Triple Crown. I shed no tears for a former President that so negatively effected my life. Smarty Jones will always be one of my favorites, he was the best of an extremely talented group of 3 yr olds that year. Birdstone on the other hand has proven to be even more talented in the breeding shed than he was on the track.  

17 Dec 2009 10:32 AM
Whatever

Yes,  what a GREAT champion Birdstone was,  wasn't he?  This horse needed a serious rest after derby in order to beat Smarty Jones by a head;  that's why they skipped the Preakness--to give him the rest and an edge against Smarty and thats why they need to change the requirements for trile crown races.  If you don't run in the derby--you cannot run in the Preakness-and if you don't run in the Preakness--you cannot run in the Belmont Stakes.  That will ensure the glorified sprinters must run in the Derby (Rachel A., Red Bullet, bernardini, etc..) and the sore losers of the derby MUST run in the Preakness to run in the Belmont(Birdstone, Empire Maker, etc..)  The sport of kings has become the sport of jealousy and nobody wants to see anyone win a triple crown--not to mention the shieks of dubai have purchased everything that had triple cornw potential--There will never be another triple crown winner--trust me.

17 Dec 2009 10:44 AM
Robyn

Was part of this article reposted earlier this year? After the rise of the Birds? I just remember reading it and thinking "wow, I never even thought about it like that before." Like so many others I loved Smarty and was so heartbroken when he lost. And reading about how his legs were trembling with exhaustion after the race brings that heartbreak back. But reading about how Birdstone fought for respect before as well as after the race, and how his owner and trainer were apologizing for winning--well, as silly as it sounds, it helped me feel a little closure. It makes me glad he is off to a great start as a sire. Anyway Steve, thank you for writing such beautiful articles. Afleet Alex is one of my "heart" horses so I am looking forward to you reposting your recaps of his races!

17 Dec 2009 11:05 AM
Erica

Thanks for posting the great article, Steve.  Smarty Jones was a great horse, but I have to disagree with all the remarks about him "deserving" the Triple Crown.  Sometimes the best horse doesn't win and it can happen for a variety of reasons.  But, the Triple Crown is a rarity precisely because it takes a combination of many factors all coming together at the same time to make it happen.  It didn't happen for Smarty.

If we start declaring Triple Crown winners based on who "deserved" it then Smarty Jones wouldn't have been the 12th.  There would have been Spectacular Bid first.  I'd throw Point Given in there as well.  Others could probably pick their favorites that "deserved" it but were denied by bad luck, bad rides, bad surfaces, or bad tactics by other jockeys.  But, the beauty of the Triple Crown is that it is judged on only one thing -- who crossed the wire first in the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont.

I look forward to reading more of these articles and sincerely hope that my personal favorite, Point Given, is featured at some point.

17 Dec 2009 12:47 PM
Steve Haskin

I agree with you, Erica. Many have deserved it, but this is an elite club and only the racing gods decide who gets in. It's supposed to be difficult.

I'm sure I'll get to Point Given.

17 Dec 2009 1:17 PM
Debbie O'Connor

Steve,

You know, you really are a great writer.  Reading this article again brought tears to my eyes.  These animals have so much heart, it just breaks mine.  Reading about poor Smarty's trembling legs, he gave his all.  I really grew to dislike Jerry Bailey because of his tactics in this race, but that's show business, I guess.  I always hoped Smarty would be the most spectacular stud, but at present, that seems to be Birdstone's forte.  The little horsie that could.  Thanks again for reissuing these great articles.

17 Dec 2009 1:52 PM
Erica

Thanks, Steve.

The Triple Crown is supposed to be difficult, that is what makes it so wonderful and frustrating at the same time.  Each year we start looking at the potential candidates and, some years, we see that one colt with that something special that makes us think "this could be it."  It draws us in and keeps us riveted, always knowing that we are but one step away from something special, but also one step away from another disappointment.

Yet, despite the fact that we know that each quest is more likely to end in disappointment than triumph, we still keep hoping and keep thinking "this one -- he (or she) is the one that will finally do it."

That's what makes the Triple Crown special.  Hope renews every first Saturday in May.

17 Dec 2009 2:26 PM
da3hoss

Smarty kind of beat himself that day by not relaxing in the race...might have been the crowd...might have been everything in the air being a little more keyed up than usual.

That's why we ahave to deeply admire every one of the 11 that endured and mastered everything that is the Triple Crown...

17 Dec 2009 3:10 PM
BELLWETHER

THE MONY I THOUGHT I BET ON SMARTY ($215 TO WIN) WAS ON SEEK GOLD ANOTHER ZITO HORSE THAT PAID 48.80... THE TICKET LADY GAVE ME THE RITE HORSE# WRONG RACE(ALL $2 WIN TICKETS)& I NEVER CHECKED THEM TILL I GOT BACK TO VA...I WON RITE @ $5000 BONE$...#12 WILL B THE GREATEST ONE OF ALL!!!...A STORY HOLLYWOOD COULDN'T DREAM UP...LONG LIVE THE KING!!!...

17 Dec 2009 4:19 PM
Nancy

Hi Steve - A friend and I drove to Belmont on Stakes day.  We were there at 7:30am waiting for the gates to open.  It was the first time either one of us had been to a horse race let alone the Belmont Stakes.  We had become avid Smarty Jones fans and just knew he was going to win.  Alas, my hopes for him to be a Triple Crown winner began to fade as I watched him come out of the tunnel and proceed to warm up on his way to the gate.  He was very ansy, nervous and in my opinion out of control.  I watched as Elliott walked him back and forth, back and forth - he did not seem to be able to get him to calm down or come under control at all.  I said to my friend Cris that Smarty's behavior was not good.  When he lost, the disappointment trackside was something you could cut with a knife.  It was unbelievable.  I've always thought his loss was due to the extreme tension he exhibited prior to the race.  So, it was great, as always, to read your excellent descriptions of the day and the take on how the race unfolded.  When one is in the stands you don't get to see every detail and there is no reply of the race on the big screens so the fans can take it in again.

To me, the Belmont is a very difficult challenge for the horses for obvious reasons and more exciting than the Derby.

I think the most exciting and memorable Belmont Stakes was when Rags to Riches battled Curlin for the win.  That was stupendous!  And, I dearly love Curlin.

17 Dec 2009 5:14 PM

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