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Posted Wednesday, June 2, 2004

by Bill Hogan


I don't like the idea of there being two weeks between the NFL Conference Championships and the Super Bowl. There's too much time to analyze, scrutinize and criticize. Each participating team's strengths and weaknesses are dissected to the nth degree and the players are put under a microscope by the media for fourteen days.

By the time he enters the starting gate at Belmont Park on Saturday, Smarty Jones will have been under the probing and watchful eyes of horse racing experts, commentators, reporters and fans for 21 mind-numbing days. Thankfully, though, Smarty can't understand what all the commotion is about.


The general opinion seems to be unanimous. Smarty Jones will win the 136th running of the Belmont Stakes. He will start the mile and a half race from the number nine post position and has been dubbed a 2-5 favorite to win the grueling event, capture the Triple Crown and take home a $5 million bonus for his troubles.

The only real debate (according to the "experts") is whether Smarty Jones is a superior horse on the verge of greatness or is he simply running against a bunch of nags. An argument which may never have been brought up if there wasn't so much time between his overwhelming win at the Preakness and the start of the Belmont.

For years now, horse racing authorities and enthusiasts have been clamoring for the next great horse to step up and win the first Triple Crown since Affirmed accomplished the feat during the Carter administration. Now, the surest thing to come along since Secretariat, is poised to answer their prayers and there are some who think Smarty will become the 12th member of an elite group of thoroughbreds by default.

One writer predicted that the only way Smarty Jones could lose the Belmont is if he falls down. Not exactly a sterling commentary on the abilities of the other eight entries. Rather than bask in the anticipation of witnessing a feat so rare that disco music was the rage the last time it was accomplished, there are those who prefer to diminish the performance.

I guess it's been so long since a horse has been able to dominate the racetrack the way Smarty Jones has in his nine lifetime outings that the cynics among us just can't believe he's for real. There must be some other explanation, because this horse simply doesn't belong with the legends of the sport.

Sir Barton was the first Triple Crown winner, capturing the three prestigious races in 1919. It came as quite a surprise considering he was winless as a two-year old. In the three-horse race at the Belmont Stakes, Sir Barton beat two mediocre opponents to become the first "legend" of the sport.

I don't like to speak ill of the dead, but it doesn't seem at all illogical to stack Smarty Jones' credentials up against the guy at the top of list of horse racing's elite. Gallant Fox added his name to that list in 1930 after beating what critics called "weak fields" in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. I don't see any asterisks next to his name in the record books.

With a few notable exceptions, Smarty can go hoof to hoof with any of the past champions – provided he wins the race on Saturday. That's no small task. Recent history has proven that anything can happen in a mile and a half race.

For three weeks the big story has not been whether Smarty Jones will win the Belmont Stakes but why he will win and become the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years. Forget about Purge, Birdstone and Rock Hard Ten, this race is a done deal.

There's been more talk about who will play trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliot in the movie than how either of them plan on navigating the racetrack. And the biggest question seems to be whether Smarty Jones will keep racing or retire undefeated to a stud ranch.

I'll go ahead and say it. It's a classic case of putting the cart before the horse. There's a reason the betting windows will be open at Belmont Park this Saturday.

There is one sure thing: if – or, as many believe, when – Smarty Jones crosses the wire ahead of the field, there's no question that he is worthy of the praise and attention bestowed upon the 12th Triple Crown winner in the history of horse racing.


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