Smarty Jones Charges for the Triple Crown
NEW YORK – So what if rain is forecast for the Belmont Stakes (search)? Smarty Jones (search) has already splashed to victory through pools of mud at the Kentucky Derby (search).
Think the grueling 1 1/2-mile oval may prove too long for him? He's finished his last two races with stamina to spare.
On Saturday, millions will watch to see whether the brilliant, undefeated 3-year-old colt can become racing's first Triple Crown (search) winner in 26 years.
"He's training like a machine," trainer John Servis said Friday after Smarty Jones jogged around the track at Belmont Park. "I don't see him having any problem with a mile-and-a-half. He's ready. He knows it's coming close. He realizes it's time to dance."
Eight other horses will be ready, too, looking to thwart Smarty's bid to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
Of the 28 horses that have entered the Belmont with a chance at the Triple, 17 have failed, including five in the last seven years.
Charismatic broke his leg during the race in 1999, War Emblem stumbled out of the gate in 2002, and Funny Cide floundered in the mud last year. And in 1979, heavily favored Spectacular Bid lost after stepping on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont.
Jason Orman, who saddles Rock Hard Ten, said the rain adds an element of surprise to every race.
"You never know how they'll handle it," he said.
The rain alone shouldn't be enough to keep Smarty Jones from making history before an expected crowd of more than 100,000. He does well on wet tracks, winning the Arkansas Derby on mud before doing the same at a drenched Churchill Downs.
Forecasters predicted a 60 percent chance of rain at the 6:38 p.m. post time.
"I know that my horse is a good horse, and he'll run on anything," Servis said.
"The country has been waiting for a Triple Crown winner, and I know now why there haven't been many. The American people have fallen in love with this horse."
Seven months ago, no one outside Philadelphia Park had ever heard of Smarty Jones. Now he's the 2-5 favorite in the race that could make him just the 12th Triple Crown winner.
Since slamming his head on an iron bar at a starting gate last summer, fracturing his skull and almost dying, Smarty has been overpowering in winning all eight of his races under the patient and poised riding of Stewart Elliott.
And the undersized red chestnut colt seems to be getting stronger. Three weeks ago, the Pennsylvania-bred horse owned by Pat and Roy Chapman won the Preakness by a record 11 1/2 lengths, just two weeks after beating 17 rivals in the Kentucky Derby.
Still, the Belmont has a way of making a favorite look like anything but one.
"Let's face it, we've got a bull's-eye on our back," Servis said. "There are going to be some things happening in this race that are going to be totally uncharacteristic for a normal race, and Stewart is going to have to get through that."
Things have fallen into place so well for Team Smarty that rain might actually increase the colt's chances of joining Seattle Slew as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winners.
Among the rivals Smarty Jones will face, Birdstone (15-1) and Master David (20-1) ran poorly over the slop at Churchill Downs, while Purge (5-1) was second in the Arkansas Derby.
Rock Hard Ten (8-1) and Eddington (10-1), who finished second and third, respectively, in the Preakness, have run only on fast tracks. Royal Assault (20-1) has never raced on a sloppy track. The two 50-1 long shots — Caiman and Tap Dancer — haven't run on wet tracks, either.
Trainer Mark Hennig said Eddington has trained well over a sloppy track. "We might be better trying him in the mud," he said.
With a victory Saturday, Smarty Jones would do more than join the sport's most elite club. He'd also become the richest racehorse in North America, with earnings topping $13 million.
Smarty's bankroll stands at $7.4 million. He would earn a $5 million bonus for winning the Triple Crown, plus the Belmont winner's purse of $600,000. Total haul: $13,013,155.
The money, though, is only a small part of the Smarty Jones story. Racing fans are desperate for a superstar, for some remarkable colt to end the long, long Triple Crown drought.
"It's just such an electric moment," said Patrice Wolfson, owner of Affirmed. "To non-racing people, it's a happening. To racing people, it's just the second coming. And we really need it. I so hope that he wins."