Smarty Jones has the look of a Triple Crown champion

Monday, May 17, 2004

BALTIMORE -- Smarty Jones was unbeaten before the Kentucky Derby, but there were questions about the quality of the competition. After he put away 17 rivals to win the Derby, doubters claimed Smarty was aided by a sloppy track.

With his record-setting romp in the Preakness Stakes over a fast track on a hot and hazy Saturday, there's only one question remaining: Can Smarty Jones win the Triple Crown?

Absolutely.

Sure, it's been 26 years since Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, the longest drought between Triple Crown winners. And yes, this will be the sixth Triple try in the last eight years -- and 10th since Steve Cauthen guided Affirmed to three narrow wins over Alydar in 1978.

But this time, there will be a 12th Triple Crown champion. Smarty Jones is perfect so far, and there's no reason to believe he won't continue on his merry way to racing immortality in the Belmont on June 5.

He's turned aside every challenge with one unbelievable stretch run after another, and he has shown no signs of wear and tear. His breathtaking surge to win the Preakness by a record 11 1/2 lengths has people wondering what's next.

"The intriguing part of Smarty Jones is we don't feel like we've seen the bottom of him," said Penny Chenery, the owner of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, who won the Belmont by an incredible 31 lengths. "He seems to have limitless ability."

Cauthen has been keeping tabs on Smarty, too.

"The more he races, the more he seems to be turning into a champion," Cauthen said Sunday by telephone from Kentucky. "He takes it all in, and is improving mentally and physically with each race."

Smarty Jones was a happy colt Sunday morning, eagerly gulping down his feed before being vanned back to Philadelphia Park. The smallish red chestnut colt won't return to the track until he jogs Wednesday, and tentative plans call for Smarty to be shipped to Belmont Park sometime after May 24.

"He came out of the race terrific," trainer John Servis said.

A hard road to gloryOn the Triple trail for the first time, Servis is beginning to find out how tough it is to get through the punishing grind of three races at three tracks at three distances over five weeks.

"I realize now why there has only been a handful of horses to win the Triple Crown," he said. "It's a very grueling road, and we've been on it since January. But I've got a good horse, and he's doing real well. As long as he continues to do how he is, we're going to go into the Belmont with a loaded gun."

The Belmont is called The Test of the Champion for a reason. At 1 1/2 miles, it's the longest race a 3-year-old is asked to run. Fatigue ended Triple tries by Alysheba in 1987 and Silver Charm in 1997, but that doesn't seem to be a problem for Smarty. He was still running strong even after he crossed the finish line Saturday.

The 3-year-old son of Elusive Quality has won handily on fast tracks and wet tracks. He can sit off the lead or set the pace. He responds with gusto whenever jockey Stewart Elliott asks for something extra. And Servis has made all the right training moves with a Pennsylvania-bred who nearly died in a training accident less than a year ago.

Bobby Frankel, whose Empire Maker spoiled Funny Cide's Triple Crown bid last year in the Belmont, was bowled over by Smarty's Preakness.

"He looked like a superstar," the Hall of Fame trainer said Sunday from New York. "He looks like a cinch in the Belmont unless something goes wrong. He likes an off track. He likes a fast track. He's always in the race and doesn't need anyone to set the pace for him. He's a complete horse."

No, he doesn't have royal bloodlines. He isn't owned by a Sheik or a Prince or a Kentucky blue blood. He's not trained or ridden by a Hall of Famer. And his name doesn't even sound as if it belongs in the company of Triple Crown champions like War Admiral or Seattle Slew.

But none of that counts when the starting gate springs open. Seattle Slew cost $17,500. Affirmed was far from regally bred.

"There's no rhyme or reason to why they are so special," Cauthen said. "All the great horses, they are a gift from above. You still need good fortune, but Smarty Jones is looking like he could be the horse."

He sure is.

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