NEW YORK – Belmont, you ol' heartbreaker, you did it again.
Smarty Jones (search) lost his Triple Crown bid and his perfect record when Birdstone ran him down near the finish of Saturday's thrilling Belmont Stakes, toppling his chance to end a record 26-year drought without a winner of thoroughbred racing's most coveted prize.
The little red chestnut was poised to become the 12th Triple Crown (search) champion when he turned for home, but Birdstone came flying down the stretch and took the lead inside the 16th pole to win by a length.
That move dashed yet another Triple Crown hopeful's attempt to do what no horse has managed since Affirmed in 1978.
A raucous crowd of more than 100,000 filled Belmont Park (search) hoping to see popular 3-year-old Pennsylvania-bred run into history. Instead, this crowd, like many others, left disappointed and wondering when another Triple champion might grace this track.
Smarty Jones is the third straight Kentucky Derby and Preakness (search) winner, and sixth in the past eight years, to fall short in the 1-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three races.
And so, the exclusive little club of 11 Triple Crown champions remains the same. And Smarty Jones is now the 18th horse to come tantalizingly close to winning it all, only to be tripped up in the race known as the "Test of the Champion."
Last year, New York-bred Funny Cide (search) couldn't handle a wet track and was beaten by Empire Maker; two years ago, War Emblem stumbled at the start and finished eighth. This time, it might have been jockey Stewart Elliott who asked Smarty Jones to move to the lead too soon, with about a mile to go.
"I wasn't feeling good down the backside, he wasn't settling like he had," trainer John Servis said. "The one thing I was worried about was him being too sharp, and I just couldn't get him settled."
Losing hurt, he said, "but we had a really good run."
"We're not going to put our head down. We're proud," he said.
By the time the nine-horse field rounded the final turn on a fast track, Smarty Jones had already worked harder then he had in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. With jockey Edgar Prado urging on Birdstone, Smarty Jones had nothing left and lost for the first time in nine races.
"When I peaked over and saw Birdstone," Elliott said, "I thought we might be in trouble. He was coming pretty strong."
Prado, aware the crowd desperately wanted Smarty Jones to win, was apologetic afterward.
"I'm very sorry, of course," he said, "but I had to do my job, that's what I'm paid for. I'm very sorry that I had to win."
Birdstone, who ran eighth behind Smarty Jones in the Derby, gave Prado his second huge upset in the Belmont. Two years ago, he spoiled War Emblem's Triple try by winning aboard 70-1 shot Sarava, for the biggest payoff in Belmont history — $142.50.
Birdstone went off at 36-1, and gave trainer Nick Zito his first Belmont win after five second-place finishes.
Smarty Jones was second, followed by Royal Assault, Eddington, Rock Hard Ten, Tap Dancer, Master David, Caiman and Purge.
Birdstone, owned by socialite Marylou Whitney, returned $74, $14 and $8.60. Smarty Jones, the 3-10 favorite, paid $3.30 and $2.60. Royal Assault was $6.10 to show.
Winning time for the race was 2:27.50, well off 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat's record of 2:24.
Instead of joining Seattle Slew as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winners, Smarty is in the same company as Majestic Prince, who was undefeated until his loss in the 1969 Belmont.
Earlier in the week, Zito all but conceded the race and Triple Crown to Smarty Jones, saying he'd be happy with second place. The New York trainer was much happier with the victory, while Whitney also apologized for denying Smarty Jones a place in history.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I wanted Smarty Jones to win," Whitney said. "We love Smarty Jones and think he has done more for the racing community, and I think it gives everyone a chance to think `This can happen to me."'