Cheers, Tears, and Silence at the Belmont Stakes

There is something exciting about a horse attempting to sweep the Triple Crown, but when that horse is undefeated, as Justify is, it adds a special element to what is already an historic event.

The Belmont Stakes has seen four  undefeated horses attempt to sweep the Triple Crown, with Seattle Slew the only one who succeeded. The California golden boy, Majestic Prince, could only finish a distant second to Arts and Letters in 1969, which would be the final start of his career. Big Brown had a disastrous Belmont after dominating the first two legs in 2008. And then there was 2004 and Smarty Jones, whose defeat at the hands of 36-1 Birdstone still haunts many of those who witnessed it. Never before had Belmont Park seen such ear-piercing cheers turn to dead silence in the span of 25 seconds. People in the stands wept openly, and 14 years later, many still cannot bear to watch the race.

Smarty Jones, whose amazing Cinderella story captured the nation, went into the Belmont with a big fat bullseye on his back, and as feared, several of the jockeys aimed their arrows at that bullseye and hit it square dead center, forcing the issue and getting him rank, resulting in a suicidal :22 4/5 third quarter; unheard of in a mile-and-half race. But despite the gang-up tactics, which cost those riders dearly, Smarty Jones still came to the quarter pole with a 3 1/2-length lead, as a record crowd began cheering wildly, even though Smarty had run the mile and a quarter in a swift 2:00 2/5.

Track announcer Tom Durkin’s voice was already building to a glorious crescendo, sensing history was about be made.

“And Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000.”

Durkin recalled several years ago, “I saw this place was overwhelmed with people, so I called down and asked what the estimate crowd was going to be, because that was part of the story. I figured if I could fit it in and it seemed appropriate, I would use it. And when I heard all those people screaming when Smarty opened a four-length lead, it did seem appropriate.”

But soon a new name entered the picture and Durkin’s voice changed. “But Birdstone is going to make him earn it today. The whip is out on Smarty Jones. It’s been 26 years. It’s just one furlong away.”

The experienced Durkin could already feel the dream unraveling. “I was pumped, but you could tell from the sound of my voice that Birdstone was coming on,” he said.

“Birdstone is an outside threat. They’re coming down to the finish. Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone. Birdstone surges past.” And then Durkin’s voice went somber. “Birdstone … wins … the … Belmont … Stakes”--the last three words dropping as if it had been pushed off a cliff.

“Until they get someone who’s not a human being to call moments like that in racing, you’re going to get that,” Durkin said. “Normally you don’t, but it kind of fit. It seemed appropriate. The New York Times the next day called it probably the most non-celebratory win call in sports history. When you prepare, it’s just jamming a bunch of stuff that might come up. But 95% of it isn’t. Sometimes you’re just a fan, but very infrequently I might add. It happens maybe one time in 37 years and that was the day.”

Reflecting on what happened to Smarty Jones that day, Durkin said as if dumbfounded, “He ran the third quarter in :22 4/5 … in a mile-and-a-half race? Oh, good lord.” Then he paused for a second and said in disgust, “Ugh, too bad.”

Today, when the name Smarty Jones is brought up, it brings mixed reactions. One is expressing the undying love for the horse after all these years and the other is reacting as if a knife had been stuck in their gut.

In posting on Facebook and Twitter of my upcoming visit to Calumet Farm to see Smarty Jones, it brought reactions such as these:

“I can't think of a more heartbreaking defeat than Smarty Jones in the Belmont. Still unwatchable 14 years later.”

“I can honestly say I have never felt so empty after a race than I did that day. I wanted him to win so bad as an undefeated champion.”

“It broke my heart that he lost the Belmont, I’ll never forget the largest crowd in history suddenly silenced. And the little girl next to me who I comforted when she broke out in tears.”

“Brutal. Still can't watch that race.”

“It was following Smarty that got me into horse racing - still love him so much!! That Belmont about killed me!! Talk about crying my eyes out!!!”

“That Belmont run still breaks my heart. I cried so hard that day.”

“It was more silent immediately after that race than it was during the moment of silence for President Reagan (who died earlier that day).”

“It was so eerie... thousands screaming and then... silence.”

“It was like a balloon got suddenly deflated. The roar of that Belmont crowd becoming still as he got could physically feel it. Awesome horse and tried so hard.”

“His story was so compelling, so heartwarming. The outcome of the 2004 Belmont Stakes was like the worst kind of cruelty joke.”

“His Triple Crown campaign was brilliant and mesmerizing, and his loss in the Belmont will always be one of the most heartbreaking moments in my racing memory. It was an honor to be in his presence.”

“I still cry when I see that re-run of the 2004 Belmont.....but as the years have gone by, I've realized how wonderful Smarty was and all he accomplished.”

“Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of a 120,000! Gets me every time.”

“I felt absolutely SICK. Poor Smarty, he gave his all that day.”

“I love him so much. That was an amazing run even if it ended in heartbreak.”

And there was this request: “Give him a pat from all your bloggers who love him to this day. I cried when he lost. Not just tears, but ugly crying.”

Yes, Smarty affected people in many ways, including their relationships–“I love this horse more than words can say. I actually ended up breaking up with a longtime boyfriend because he wouldn't go to Oaklawn (we were in Hot Springs) on Arkansas Derby day to watch Smarty. He refused to take me so I missed the race. Still bummed I never saw him run in person.”

Another person said, “My son was born June 28, 2004. I tease him by saying that he was a half-length away from being named Smarty Jones.”

There is no concrete explanation why some horses affect us the way they do, and why people rejoice to such an extent at their victories and are so deeply affected, sometimes traumatized, by their defeats. In Smarty’s case, both the exultation he inspired in his victories and the trauma of his lone defeat have lasted for 14 years and will continue to do so. His legion of fans no longer watch the Belmont, and can only remember the jubilation they felt at the quarter pole when victory and history overcame them in one powerful wave of emotion. It was as if what happened after that no longer exists in the mind. That is where they have closed the curtain on the Smarty Jones Show.

As for Tom Durkin, he never did get to call a Triple Crown winner, retiring one year before American Pharoah came along to end a 37-year drought. He came oh so close with Real Quiet and Silver Charm, but it was his call in 2004 that will be remembered, not only for the defeat of Smarty Jones, but the defeat in his voice. Both Smarty and Durkin had history in their grasp only to see it slip away in those agonizing final yards of the Belmont.

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