It is lunchtime at Barn 11 on the backstretch at Philadelphia Park. Oversized wooden sawhorses and yards of yellow police tape isolate the home of Smarty Jones, the 3-year-old chestnut colt who would, with a victory in this Saturday's Belmont Stakes, become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 26 years. Inside a cluttered 12-by-18-foot office at the end of the shedrow, trainer John Servis sits at a desk next to his wife, Sherry, who has taken on the role of publicity manager. Cellphones ring incessantly. A portable air conditioner drones on in the corner, ruffling the countless piles of paper around the room. For his midday meal John hoists a plastic bottle of Turns, dumps several into his mouth and washes them down with the last mouthful from a 20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew. He laughs at his nutritional choice and shrugs.
Servis arrived home on May 16, the day after the unbeaten Smarty Jones crushed the Preakness field by a record 11� lengths for his eighth straight win. The 1�-mile Belmont lay three weeks ahead, beckoning Smarty to run further with the baton he has taken from Funny Cide and Seabiscuit, drawing fans back to a once wildly popular sport. Smarty is a nearly perfect racehorse, hardly tired after the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, growing fitter and more mature each day. Horsemen gush over him. "He's a gift from God, that little horse, the way he keeps on running," says trainer Bob Baffert, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet ('98) and War Emblem (2002). "That track at Pimlico was deep mat day, and he made it look fast. He's a freak of nature. If he wins the Belmont the way he won the Preakness, people will put him in the same category as Secretariat." Now it was Servis's job to keep Smarty just right for three more weeks, with a curious and hungry world watching.
"There's an awful lot of pressure in those three weeks," says Barclay Tagg, who trained Funny Cide to victories in last year's Derby and Preakness before losing to Empire Maker in the Belmont. When do you work your horse and at what distance? When do you bring him to New York? How do you manage the media? "The day after the Preakness," says Servis, "I said to Sherry, 'This is going to be a challenge.' "
Smarty Jones is the 10th horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Derby and the Preakness, and this will be the sixth time in eight years that the Triple Crown has been on the line at Belmont Park. Yet sealing the deal remains extraordinarily difficult. There have been only 11 Triple Crown winners. "Horses have been close lately, but they haven't won it because they just weren't good enough," says Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed. Here are the reasons why other horses have failed—and why Smarty Jones may succeed.
To prepare for the Kentucky Derby, a colt must run a series of prep races in the winter and early spring. Then, to earn the Triple Crown, he must win not only the Derby but also the Preakness two weeks later and, three weeks after that, the Belmont at a taxing distance most horses will never again run. It is a brutal schedule in an era when horses rarely run more than once a month. "If you win the Derby, you should win the Preakness, because it's only two weeks later and you've got the fittest horse in the bunch," says Baffert. "But in those three weeks before the Belmont, things start to happen."
Pleasant Colony (1981), Sunday Silence ('89) and Silver Charm all had exhausting races leading up to the Belmont. Last year Funny Cide ran desperately hard in the Wood Memorial (where he finished second), the Derby and the Preakness (where he won by nearly 10 lengths under enthusiastic whipping from Jose Santos). "Each race was better than the one before," says Tagg. "Eventually that caught up to him."
In contrast, Servis has handled Smarty Jones as if he were a robin's egg in a windstorm. He eschewed the lucrative prep races in California, Florida, Kentucky and New York and took his horse to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, where he went 3 for 3, learning to race without suffering any damage. Smarty won the Derby and the Preakness easily. Five days after the latter, he galloped at Philadelphia Park and wanted to run free so badly that he started screeching, a reaction Servis had never seen before. " John Servis took the softer route with his horse and came to the Derby with a full tank," says trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of a record 13 Triple Crown races. "As a result, he's sitting on a relatively fresh horse and should be fairly well set up to get the job done in the Belmont."
It helps that there is no Empire Maker awaiting Smarty Jones in New York. In a smallish field that could include anywhere from five to eight opponents, the most genuine threat is Rock Hard Ten, the massive, lightly raced (just four starts) Preakness runner-up, while the enigmatic Eddington presents an intriguing betting interest. Save for Smarty Jones, the only other likely starter from the Kentucky Derby is Bird-stone, a measure of how thoroughly Smarty has chased off the 3-year-old class with his dominance.
2. TOO MUCH PRESSURE