The frail man in the wheelchair knew that this would be a horse race, not just a coronation. A record crowd of 120,139 had flooded into Belmont Park last Saturday expecting to witness history and had made Smarty Jones a 1-5 favorite to take the Belmont Stakes and become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. But Roy (Chappie) Chapman, the septuagenarian owner who suffers from emphysema but whose crusty humor had been one of the myriad heartwarming Smarty Jones plotlines during the past month and a half, did not share the fans' presumption. � "Confident?" Chappie said to a visitor in his handicapped-accessible box above the Belmont finish line just 90 minutes before post time. "Not in this race. No way." He gestured with his left arm toward the quarter pole, impossibly far off. "Look at that homestretch," he said. "Look at it!" Then Chappie crossed the fingers on both of his gnarled hands and held them in the air, entrusting Smarty to the racing gods.
The racing gods are not to be trusted. For the sixth time in eight years a horse had gone to Belmont Park with a chance to end the long Triple Crown drought, and for the sixth time the horse came up short. Smarty Jones weakened in the final 100 yards of the 1�-mile race, paying the price not only for a crackling middle half mile but also for the wearying six-month journey from Philadelphia Park to Arkansas to Louisville to Baltimore to New York—and also, perhaps, for the enormous expectations. He had won all eight of his races, but 36-1 shot Birdstone caught him deep in the stretch on Saturday, and when the race was finished, the first words that winning trainer Nick Zito spoke to John Servis, his counterpart in the Smarty Jones camp, were, "I'm sorry, man."
Smarty Jones was the biggest star in recent racing history. He pushed the Triple Crown's television ratings to their highest levels in more than a decade and would send the Belmont's to their highest since Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977. More than $500,000 in licensed Smarty Jones merchandise was sold in the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont. Seabiscuit (the book and movie) and Funny Cide (the horse with Everyman owners who won the Derby and the Preakness last year) had reawakened the public to horse racing, and Smarty Jones surged across demographic boundaries with a series of implausible stories—not just the ailing owner but also the hard-luck jockey, the journeyman trainer and the colt's ghastly starting-gate accident last summer. On Saturday fans chanted his name, papered the paddock railings with posters and bought thousands of $2 win tickets as keepsakes.
If racing purists had resisted proclaiming some recent Derby-and- Preakness-winning horses—such as Charismatic (1999) and War Emblem (2002)—worthy of becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner, they rushed to support Smarty's campaign. "I'm a Smarty Jones fan," said Shug McGaughey, who trained 1989 Belmont winner Easy Goer. Two days before the Belmont, respected veteran trainer Elliott Walden brought his 11-year-old son, Mack, to Smarty's barn just to see the horse up close. The colt was housed in Barn 5, the one in which Secretariat lived in '73, and just before the race Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat during his historic run to the Triple Crown, visited Chappie and his wife, Pat, in their box. "We talked about Big Red and Little Red, and she wished us luck," says Pat. "It was an incredible moment."
Even as Smarty Jones arrived in New York, negotiations were under way to syndicate his breeding rights to any of a half-dozen Kentucky breeding farms for a price that was expected to approach $40 million (and will now be somewhat less). Yet as race day approached, Servis saw at least one ominous sign. As he leaned on a white fence outside his barn last Thursday, the trainer said he had seen "some very slight physical signs" that his 1,060-pound chestnut was feeling the effects of the Triple Crown grind. "Mentally he's sharp. Soundness-wise, no problems. But I've noticed, in the mornings it takes him longer to warm up. Usually an eighth of a mile or less, he's hitting on all cylinders. Now it's a half mile or more."
Servis had spent almost three weeks trying to take the aggressive edge off Smarty Jones to prepare him for the added distance of the Belmont. "When he came out of the Preakness, I was tickled to death, until the day afterward," Servis said after the Belmont. "Then I thought, Oh, s—-, he's so damn sharp, now what am I going to do? The last thing you want in a mile-and-a-half race is a horse that's too sharp." So Smarty went on long daily gallops under 170-pound exercise rider Pete Van Trump while Servis, riding alongside on 23-year-old stable pony Butterscotch, held the colt's reins, strained by the effort of holding him back. The purpose of the gallops—and of Smarty's only workout, seven leisurely furlongs under jockey Stewart Elliott eight days before the Belmont—was to dull his desire to use his natural speed. "Obviously it didn't work," said Servis. "But I don't know what I could have done differently. That's why the Triple Crown is so tough."
In the Belmont, Smarty broke cleanly from the outside post and took the lead before yielding to Purge in the first turn. Smarty overtook Purge as the nine-horse field approached the long backstretch, but he was immediately pressed by Eddington, then Preakness runner-up Rock Hard Ten. To repel the three early challengers, Smarty followed an opening half mile of 48.65 seconds with a dangerously fast second half mile of 46.79. "He never relaxed," said Elliott. History hasn't been kind to jockeys who moved too quickly in the Belmont, and Servis had said earlier in the week, "This is going to be the biggest race of Stewart Elliott's life. This is a race he can win or lose."
When it was over, though, Servis put no blame on the jockey. "Stewy rode a great race," he said. Near the end Elliott lashed Smarty on the right flank and then the left, but the horse was finished, and Birdstone, with Edgar Prado aboard, bested him easily. "He just bottomed out the last 100 yards," said Jerry Bailey, who finished fourth on Eddington.
" Smarty Jones ran a huge race," said Jason Orman, trainer of Rock Hard Ten, who faded to fifth. "He had to fight off those horses early and then just barely got beat at the finish."
There was an eerie symmetry to Bird-stone's win, Zito's first in the Belmont after five runner-up showings. In the late winter, when Smarty Jones was blossoming at Oak-lawn Park in Arkansas, beneath the radar, Zito had three genuine Derby contenders: Birdstone, Eurosilver and The Cliff's Edge. The vagaries of racing trimmed that roster: Eurosilver contracted an infection in his neck and was removed from the Derby trail in early April. The Cliff's Edge won the Blue Grass on April 10 and was among the favorites in the Derby, but he ran a disappointing fifth and missed the Preakness and the Belmont with a lingering hoof injury. That left only Birdstone, who is owned by philanthropist and socialite Marylou Whitney, widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt (Sonny) Whitney, one of the most revered figures in old school thoroughbred racing.