Remembering Smarty Jones' thrilling ride
MY MEMORY is that the alarm went off at 4 a.m. that Saturday and I was next asleep at 2 the next morning, 22 hours, the longest day of my professional life at the end of the longest seven months of my professional life. It was definitely dark when I exited the parking lot at the Long Island Marriott and pointed the car west on Hempstead Turnpike toward Belmont Park for what I was certain was going to be a historic day. And I did not want to miss anything of June 5, 2004.
Gov. Rendell had called the previous afternoon, asking about Smarty Jones. I assured him the unbeaten Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was fine, the Triple Crown assured. Really, what could go wrong?
When I arrived on the backstretch and found a parking spot a few yards from Barn 5, Stall 10, it was still dark, and Smarty Jones was probably still asleep. In a little more than 12 hours, the colt from Philadelphia Park, owned by Philly car dealer Roy Chapman and his wife Pat, trained by PhillyPark mainstay John Servis and ridden by Stewart Elliott, one of the best jockeys in the history of the track, would be a heavy favorite to become only the second horse to win the Triple Crown while unbeaten.
I thought Smarty was going to win by 10 lengths. I did not see a scenario that could get him beat. Turned out I had not considered all the possibilities.
The fall of 2003 had blended into the winter of 2004 and then the spring and, in a few days, it would be summer. I had been right there for months with another unbeaten with those same initials that kept playing as if it would never lose. When Saint Joseph's finally did lose and its season finally ended seconds shy of the Final Four, it was time to turn my attention to the horse I had been following from far away for months.
I had seen Smarty Jones win his first two races at the Pha, what is now Parx Racing. It was clear he was different, special, perhaps even a horse that could get on the Derby trail. Then, he won in New York and twice in Arkansas. Finally, just after I got back from the Final Four, I watched Smarty dominate the Arkansas Derby and realized the colt was not just on the Derby trail and was not just in the Derby. Smarty Jones, it was clear, might win the Derby.
I remember the monsoon on Derby Day, Elliott's cool ride under intense pressure, hanging that night at the Brown Hotel for a celebration that ended with my giving Elliott a ride back to his hotel in the very early hours of Sunday morning.
I remember Oaklawn Park's Charles Cella arriving at PhillyPark to present the Chapmans with their $5 million bonus check for winning the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and the Derby itself.
I will never forget the Preakness, when Smarty ran about as fast as horses can run and won by the biggest margin in the history of the race.
I definitely will not forget all those predawn mornings at PhillyPark, driving in the dark south on Route 1 to Bensalem, watching Smarty, exercise rider Pete Van Trump and Servis enter the track alone, the track closed to all other traffic. It was what horses do every day at every track - come out of their stalls, go for a routine gallop, stretch their legs, get fit, stay fit, prepare for the next race.
This, however, was different. Smarty was not just being prepared for his next race. He was being prepared for a shot at history.
The Wednesday before the Belmont Stakes, the horse van pulled out of the Pha stable area in midmorning. While the post position draw was being conducted at Belmont Park, the star of the show was making his way to the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where the toll collectors stood outside their booths waving, taking pictures, smiling, happy to be even a small part of it.
I caught a glimpse of the Empire State Building and then noticed the Goodyear Blimp near the Meadowlands where St. Joe's season had ended a little more than two months before. The blimp would be moving east to Long Island to let everybody watching on NBC feel part of the scene on Saturday.
The horse van entered the Belmont Park backstretch precisely 2 1/2 hours after it left PhillyPark. Smarty would be housed only three stalls from where Secretariat lived in the days before his legendary Triple Crown sweep in 1973.
Really, what could go wrong?
Ron Turcotte was an early-morning visitor the day of the Belmont Stakes. Secretariat's jockey was a Smarty Jones believer.
The hours slowly melted away. It was overcast, rain a threat. Trainer Nick Zito was saying he might scratch his long-shot Birdstone if the track became sloppy. The rain held off.
I remember talking to stable foreman/philosopher Bill Foster off and on during the day. We had talked by phone during the trip north on Wednesday with Foster, riding in the horse van marveling at the scene, me following, just as amazed to see people pulled over on the Pa. Turnpike waving at a horse van.
I wandered over to the track a few times just to see how big the crowd was getting. I had been to the Belmont Stakes for years, but had never seen anything approach it. By the end, it was 120,139, a record by more than 20,000. They were there to see one horse.
Finally, it was time. The scene in the tunnel on the walkover from the barn to the paddock was chaotic, human voices echoing off the walls, high-strung horses - a combination of nervous energy and feeling trapped.
Smarty was always cool. And he seemed cool then, too.
What could go wrong?
As the horses left the paddock for the track, I will always remember Servis going back and touching the Secretariat statue before following the horses up the tunnel. They were going to the track. We were going to the box seats.
I found a seat next to old friend Bob Levy, whose Bet Twice had taken me on my first Triple Crown ride for the Daily News in 1987. Bet Twice was second to Alysheba in the Derby and Preakness before running away with the Belmont Stakes by 14 lengths. I was thinking Smarty could win by that much or more.
Servis and his family were just behind me, the Chapmans nearby. It was 6:48 p.m. and the horses were in the starting gate.
Smarty took up his customary position just off the lead. The early fractions were not taxing.
But why was Jerry Bailey steering Eddington outside of Smarty on the first turn and why was he asking his late-running horse for so much speed so soon? And what was Alex Solis doing with Rock Hard Ten on the backstretch rushing up inside Smarty.
The pace was getting much faster on that long run up Belmont Park's backstretch. Eddington and then Rock Hard Ten disappeared on the turn. As Smarty turned into the stretch, he was all alone. Still, I wondered about how much of a toll that early heat might take. As the rest of the field fell away, one horse was still running, not that fast, but steadily. That was 36-1 Birdstone.
When Smarty hit the quarter pole, I immediately noticed his stride. It was starting to shorten. He was getting tired. It took him a full 27 seconds to negotiate that final quarter mile after a brilliant mile-and-a-quarter in 2:00.52.
I now knew what could go wrong. In the final yards, Birdstone became the first and only horse ever to pass Smarty Jones.
Track announcer Tom Durkin's disbelieving voice could be heard over the silence that was just seconds before a sustained roar. There would be no Triple Crown, no perfection.
I walked over to the backstretch with Servis, disappointed, but cool and classy to the end.
Hempstead Turnpike was still jammed at 10 p.m. I slowly made my way to the stately Garden City Hotel to spend some time with the Chapmans, who were holding court in the lobby, not really wanting the day or the ride to end.
It did end that day, however. Smarty never raced again. And, when I finally went to bed that next morning, I wondered whether we would ever see a Triple Crown again.
What could go wrong?