Belmont Bird Call: Destiny 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 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 :48.65 half, jockey Stewart Elliott sent him to the lead on the backstretch, while putting in a gut-wrenching third quarter in an unheard of  :22.91. That was followed by another testing quarter in :23.68. 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 2:00.52, 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.

Shortly after turning into the stretch, 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.

Fans of all ages proudly displayed their Smarty Jones hats and t-shirts, and held up their homemade signs. By 8:15, so many people had poured into the track they had to open the second floor of the grandstand, which filled up in a matter a minutes. Only one merchandising table was set up, and there were hundreds of people gathered around, pushing and shoving trying to purchase their Smarty Jones souvenirs. This morning was the height of Smarty Jones fever, and it was as if all of the Philadelphia area was afflicted.

Said Servis of the Smarty frenzy, "It's a joy to me to see this many people come out and flock around this horse the way they do. It's great for the whole industry and I just hope it continues to roll. It's a great story, and it seems to be snowballing. It seems like more and more people are falling in love with the horse, and I'm just very fortunate to a part of the story. He's been a gift for me. The last time I got an ovation like this was probably when I kissed my wife at our wedding reception.”

The morning Smarty vanned to Belmont Park 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, John Gladu and Tim Henehan, arrived, ready to escort Smarty on the first leg of his journey. 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.
 
Henehan had thought he’d seen it all. Six months earlier he had escorted President Bush. Now here he was providing the same service for a horse.

“You’ve got a job to do, and you take it seriously no matter who you’re escorting,” 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, 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!"

As the van headed east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, clusters of people were gathered on the grass behind the service plaza taking pictures.

Approaching the final toll booth in Pennsylvania, Gladu and Henehan made a U-turn and waved to the occupants peering out of the van. “OK, guys, good luck,” Gladu shouted before turning the escort over to New Jersey state troopers, who eventually turned it over to the New York police at the George Washington Bridge for the final leg of the trip.

Smarty had become a national phenomenon, as hundreds of thousands of letters came pouring in to the Chapmans’ and Servis, and most of all Smarty. Many of those were from children, including one very special letter from Beach Cutler from Captiva Island in Florida. It read:

"Dear Smarty Jones, My name is Beach Cutler. I'm 10 year's old and I'm a fifth grader. I live on Captiva Island in Florida. I watched you win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and I think you will win the Belmont, too. I'm so excited! You have inspired me to run like a racehorse when I'm walking with my physical therapist, Trent, and when I walk in the pool with my mom. My nurse times me when I'm pretending to race. I even whinny like a horse.

You've lifted my spirits and even though I breathe through a ventilator, I feel as lucky as you. The next time you get your horseshoes changed, perhaps you could save one for me. That would be GREAT! And please let your owner, Mr. Chapman, know that we are also cheering for him to be in the best of health. I hope that this letter gets to you, and that you know how much your incredible horse spirit has done for everyone. Happy racing, Beach."

At the Chapman Ford dealership in Northeast Philly, two large banners on the front gate read, "Home of Smarty Jones.” Anyone coming in for a test drive received a free Smarty Jones hat. People would call or come in and immediately ask if Smarty Jones was there.

"It's electric here," said receptionist Irene Edinger. "I mean, people who knew Mr. Chapman 50 years ago are calling wanting to know how to get hold him. We've had a lot of reporters and TV stations here, and some of the employees here have been on TV news programs. It's an exciting time."

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 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 (gr. III) 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 (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, 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 still small. "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, whom 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. 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. 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 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 inisde. 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 testing 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. Even race caller Tom Durkin’s voice sounded noticeably deflated, as his final words, “And Birdstone wins the Belmont,” descended into the depths of disappointment.

Smarty was beaten for the first time in his career. Another body had joined the five others (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 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 another backstretch gate. 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, including a scheduled front-page spread in 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, who said after the Derby he would never again run Birdstone on a sealed track.

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 set off a jolt of electricity that has rarely been felt. The tidal wave of media coverage they generated swept across the country, picking up everyone in its path and depositing them on some fairy tale-like island.

Some day, some horse will come along and become racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner and achieve 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.   



30 Comments

Leave a Comment:

kate

Thanks so much Steve for your eloquent series on the glorious Smarty Jones.  You captured both the exhileration and the heartbreak of the Smarty saga.  Many of us in the hinterland beyond Philadelphia caught Smarty fever and went along for the trip through the Triple Crown races with Smarty, throwing Smarty parties during the Derby and the Preakness and even bigger ones in anticipation of the Belmont.  Our hearts just ached when he lost that race. But your series reminded us so vividly that you just can't get Smarty out of your heart, or your soul.  He's there to stay.  There will never be another character quite like Smarty Jones.

Thanks also for sharing some information about Birdstone, a great little horse that on one day in 2004 broke our hearts but several years later gave us an intriguing summer with his sons, Mine That Bird and Summer Bird.

26 Jun 2011 11:17 PM
Delrene

Such a great article!  It certainly was interesting to know some of the backstory and the aftermath of the race.  I remember watching it on tv and being so stunned, but being very upset to hear the boo ing of the crowd to the winner and his jockey, Edgar Prado.  On that day, Birdstone was the best horse, but overall, Smarty was a winner in every respect.  He brought such joy and excitement to all of us and so many people became newborn fans of thoroughbred racing.  And what great sons Birdstone has sired.  Little MTB & Summer Bird , such  unappreciated winners.  Each and every one of your articles has been such an education.  Thank you so much.  Wish I could express myself as eloquently as you do.  

27 Jun 2011 12:22 AM
California Girl

How?  Why?  Oh! It still hurts!  If only the rain had come and Birdstone had been scratched...

27 Jun 2011 4:31 AM
A Horsey Canuck

The "Little Big Man" redeemed himself with two of his sons as well - Mine That Bird and Summer Bird. That being said, Smarty Jones will always be "The Man". Thanks again, Steve for another great article and history lesson.

27 Jun 2011 5:09 AM
Dawn in MN

Please sir, may I have some more?  There is more, right?  I devoured this piece this morning, luckily I can go back and savor it later.

27 Jun 2011 5:58 AM
Fran Loszynski

You know Steve sometimes when a racehorse loses a race he becomes bigger than life than if he won. I really believe that. For Smarty Jones -our heartstrings pulled a little bit harder that he lost the Belmont but he really won our hearts. Birdstone ran an awesome race and that's what horseracing is. It's the moment, it's the timing, the strength, the courage to take a chance. A perfect example of losing and making an impression: Kids remember when Afleet Alex fell in the Preakness, because then they could fall and get up, a five-year old doesn't understand "Triple Crown" but a fall and a leap, yes. There's always a reason why we go Yeah! and "Oh well" in horseracing.

27 Jun 2011 7:36 AM
Twin C

Hi Steve.  Rich C here.  Ohhh, the omens we sometimes see.  As the horses came on the track for that Belmont I recalled Birdstone winning the Champagne and he was skipping across the track right in front of me. I couldn't help thinking how happy he looked and that he was a real threat to Smarty.  Just then my friend asks the guy next to him who he likes and the guy says "Birdstone."  My friend yells "Birdstone? You have a better chance of finishing last than first!"  Right then I knew it wasn't going to be for Smarty and was not surprised at all to see Birdstone charging late.  I knew when they turned for home it was over.  It was a tough finish to a great story and it was very sad that Smarty's career had to end that way but he sure beat some very good horses easily that year.  Who knows where he would stand historically if he could have continued racing.

27 Jun 2011 8:47 AM
Will

With Smarty Jones refusing to relax like he did in the Derby or Preakness and Solis and Bailey throwing away the chances of Rock Hard Ten and Eddington respectively by taking shots at Smarty, trying to run him into the ground, who can blame Elliot for going to the lead in a bold attempt to get Smarty away from these two and Purge, hoping that Smarty would then relax. Yes, as you say, Steve, it cost Elliot two unheard of taxing fractions, but the result was the disappearance of those three challengers and the rest of the field - with the fatal exception of Birdstone - now nowhere to be seen. Elliot really had no other choice with Smarty Jones pulling on him the way he did down the backstretch. Possibly one of the greatest races ever run in defeat by a horse whose breeding indicated possible distance limitations, and an admirably bold tactical decision by a jockey who almost pulled off the seeming impossible. What really beat Smarty, given the riding tactics Elliot was forced to employ, was the failure you mentioned, Steve, of the predicted rain to arrive as the front split south of NYC and the precipitation passed harmlessly to the east and west. Rain and a sealed track would have meant a scratched Birdstone if Zito, as likely, had proved a man of his word. This one wasn't written in the stars for Smarty Jones - no astrological significance here, Steve. Only God in His Providence sending the rain elsewhere that day. There must have been other factors hidden from the eyes of men that led to the diversion of the rain to other regions and denying Smarty his place in the pantheon of Triple Crown winning racing legends. As the New England Puritans used to say, good Calvinists all, the will of God can be inscrutable at times.

27 Jun 2011 10:48 AM
GoldenBroom

Definitely have to watch for more of his kids...he won a 1 1/2 as did Summer Bird. MTB won at 1 1/4. I hope someone with a well bred BIG mare breeds to him and gets a foal with the body to go with the heart and we'll be all set...

27 Jun 2011 11:03 AM
Rachel NH

No one was a bigger fan of SJ than me, right from the start.

That being said, my claim to fame with my family and friends was to tell everyone that the only horse who could outlast (not outrun) SJ was Birdstone and had friends bet him (the Bird) to win for me (just $2, LOL). He was a great 2 year-old who hadn't progressed well as a 3-year-old but he still ran the same way his daddy did, and I knew that efficient little horse had the 12F in him, and when Smarty wasn't relaxing while they kept sending horses after him, in my heart I knew a little brown machine would be coming down that long Belmont stretch...

Smarty is still a great race horse...too bad he didn't run again.

27 Jun 2011 1:48 PM
Barbara W

Steve--great story. I love BOTH Smarty and Birdstone (and his sons). I'm sure people must have laughed when I suggested that Zenyatta be bred to him, but I was serious. I already knew the Mosses wanted a smaller stallion anyway.

By the way, anyone know when the MTB movie will be out?

27 Jun 2011 2:56 PM
rapture

I had to stop reading around "rubber-legged." Even seven years later, it still hurts too much to look back on this loss. Smarty had been the first good thing that year for me (I'd lost my grandfather the previous summer), and then Whitney, Zito, Prado and Birdstone took it away. My mom tried so hard to comfort me. My younger brother said, "At least he finished second," to which I bitterly replied, "That's not the same as winning." before disappearing into the cold depths of my family's basement to cry and curse the cretins who destroyed the day.

Seven years later, I can watch Smarty's Derby and Preakness over and over, but I still will not watch that Belmont. It was a win that Smarty deserved, not Birdstone.

Time does not heal all wounds, Mr. Haskin. Thank you for the ride down memory lane. I'm just sorry I can't keep reading, for I do dearly enjoy your writing.

27 Jun 2011 3:40 PM
Paula Higgins

WOW what a wonderful piece Steve! It captures it all so perfectly. Nick Zito, Mary Lou Whitney and John Servis were all so classy, win or lose. The same with the Chapmans. Smarty Jones will always be a great horse to me. He was amazing on so many levels. To me, he was a Triple Crown winner in the sense he goes into that unforgettable category. He came close enough for it to be just about a tie LOL. Same for Zenyatta and Blame. To me it was a tie and her greatest race. Sometimes a horse can technically lose, but what you remember is how great they ran the race. They transcend their loss and the winner becomes footnote. That was Smarty and Zenyatta.

27 Jun 2011 5:21 PM
Steve Haskin

Thanks to everyone who participated in this with your comments and remembrances. I realize six parts -- several of them quite long -- on one horse is a lot to digest and a lot to wade through. So I am grateful to all of you who stuck with it. This was a one-shot deal that I thought might prove interesting to relive. Together, I feel they form a comeprehensive behind-the-scenes chronicle of the Smarty's life and times. Thanks again.

27 Jun 2011 6:32 PM
Karen in Texas

I'm getting here late, but wanted to add a few thoughts. Smarty was so, so special to many people as shown by Steve's stories. As Steve said above, Smarty was kept off the front pages of papers and magazines (Time) by the death of Reagan near the time of the Belmont. However, the December 27, 2004-January 3, 2005 issue of Time Magazine  provided their list of the twenty most influential newsmakers of 2004. Smarty was on that list along with the likes of President George Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Senator John Kerry, and cyclist Lance Armstrong to name a few. The remarks attached to Smarty began, "Yes, he's a horse. But don't hold that against him. His run at the Triple Crown was still the year's most captivating race (aside from that one for the White House)." I have kept that issue along with newspaper clippings and my Go, Smarty, Go! pin as a remembrance of the glorious Triple Crown run given to us seven years ago by Smarty Jones.

27 Jun 2011 7:56 PM
Dr Drunkinbum

Steve-It wasn't difficult at all. I didn't stick with it because I'm a Haskinite, I stuck with it because it was a fabulous series, and I feel much better about the whole Smarty experience again. I didn't even have a problem reading about the Belmont again. I think I'm over it !!!!!!! Thanks.

27 Jun 2011 8:12 PM
Mike Relva

STEVE

Thanks for all your hard work putting this together. It's much appreciated!

27 Jun 2011 10:05 PM
calico cat

Dr Drunkinbum,

Well said! That's exactly how I felt as I followed Mr. Haskin through Smarty's excellent quest for the Triple Crown.

These gems of turf-writing are now printed and bound in the Haskin Treasure Chest, my name for a very special binder, where I've saved Mr. Haskin's most memorable articles.

Thank you Mr. Haskin, you are truly the best!!!

27 Jun 2011 10:32 PM
Shelby's Best Pal

Thank you for the review of the Smarty Jones series.  I loved following Smarty's wonderful 2004 racing season. Along with so many others, I attended the Belmont stakes that year.  It was the saddest day I have experienced at the races.

27 Jun 2011 11:34 PM
Dawn in MN

Mr. Haskin,

Reading this series gave me a feeling for what I missed when I missed Smarty Jones' bid for the Triple Crown.  I was in self-imposed exile from Thoroughbred horse racing that year.  To state the obvious I missed a great story and a bid for the Triple Crown that was oh-so-painfully close.

I looked up video of the series and watched each race with great appreciation.  Watching the replay of Smarty Jones' beautifully orchestrated Preakness brought tears to my eyes.  The acceleration he showed as he pulled away in the Preakness was one of those surreal displays that will live on in story and legend.  Watching his Belmont brought new understanding for the heartbreak so many have expressed.

Thank you for telling this story as nobody else could.  The story came alive for me.  I loved this line you wrote;

"Smarty was beaten for the first time in his career. Another body had joined the five others (Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide) recently strewn just below the summit of racing's most elusive peak."

I gained tremendous respect for Birdstone and his get when I read the Belmont story.  It was also nice to learn more about Rock Hard Ten.  I have always been in awe of Rock Hard Ten.  Visually, Rock Hard Ten is such a stunning horse.  Rock Hard Ten and Birdstone's parts in the story illustrate what I once heard a trainer say.  He said that he'd pick the little horses that run their guts out over the big horse every time.  

As always, thank you for your beautiful literary illustration.  Your translation and remembrance brought a story that I missed to life.  This series, like Smarty Jones is truly; “…like an unfinished manuscript filled with beautiful prose…”

28 Jun 2011 5:54 AM
Barbara W

Mike Relva--There you are! I was never successful in logging into the new blog about DynaKing. Do you have any updates?(sorry to skip to another topic)

Paula Higgins--we've discussed this subject many times on Zenny's website, and I agree completely that her last race was Zenny's best.

Smarty is adorable. When we visited Three Chimneys, they told us that he gets his own Harry&David's catalogue in the mail!

I didn't even know this was a multi-part series. I have to go back and try to find the other parts now. Thanks again, Steve. You're my favorite writer.

28 Jun 2011 8:11 AM
Pedigree Ann

I don't get the prejudice against smaller horses. Many of the best of the 20th Century were 'little' horses. Hyperion for one, Northern Dancer for another, and 'Il Piccolo' Ribot for a third. And Princequillo was no giant. We remember Man o' War as a big horse, but at 16h 2in he would have been seen as 'average' these days; his valiant challenger John P. Grier was an average-sized horse for the day, probably around 15h to 15h 2in.

One reason horses don't race as much as they used to is that the weight of big horses punishes their forelegs. We need to re-educate ourselves to value athleticism over size.

28 Jun 2011 9:55 AM
jim culpepper

Did I read too fast or is it too soon even now to broach the fact that the call of the storm birds was heard once again on this years Belmont?

28 Jun 2011 10:11 AM
jim culpepper

Pedigree Anne, well said!

28 Jun 2011 11:48 AM
Fran Loszynski

Pedigree Ann

you're absolutely right. Look at the greatest racehorse of our time "Seabiscuit" once again the quote: "He be little , but he is fierce!" "He's going to look even smaller when you're behind him!" When a smaller racehorse sees a hole on the track, look out! there's no stopping them. Their hoofs become "sneakers"

28 Jun 2011 2:11 PM
Linda in Texas

A wonderful small horse won a race this past week end as i watched HRTV. Beat a great big one fast, furiously and fairly. You know i thought to myself fast isn't always the biggest nor the 'bestest' all the time and wanting to race comes from that heart full of 'wanna win' in them that cannot be bred out of the original bloodlines.

And to my mind quickly came the name of Champion Smarty Jones.

Thanks Steve for sharing the great stories with us.

I guess you get tired of hearing how much we all love the way you can tell a story but when someone does a superb job of what they do, i think they need to be adjulated.

28 Jun 2011 5:48 PM
Dr Drunkinbum

Zookeeper

  Aye matey, very nice treasure, shiver me timbers !!!! And good luck and continued success with Runflatout. Another treasure.

28 Jun 2011 6:37 PM
Alex'sBigFan

Thanks Steve for the great Smarty series stories.  They were fabulously told.  Don't forget, someone has to tell us how Smarty does in Uruguay, hope you get word from your connections there for a later story.  

Smarty & Zenyatta?  I LIKE it!!!

Or Alex, but we'll see what blue-blooded Bernardini produces first.

28 Jun 2011 7:48 PM
calico cat

Thank you Dr D, having good friends like you is another treasure for which I'm also very grateful. Shiver me timbers, indeed!!!

28 Jun 2011 11:38 PM
Sue MacGray

A wonderful story Steve, it makes me feel a little more forgiving of Birdstone and his connections. He obviously was/is a fine horse, as his offspring have made some waves in the past few years, and probably will continue to do so. I think Smarty was just as gutsy in his losing run though, regardless of who was/is the smaller horse. He ran his heart out and true Champions are all like that, win or lose.

29 Jun 2011 11:00 AM

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