08/03/2004 11:00PM

For 36 days, anything was possible


DEL MAR, Calif. - For purposes of mental health, a well-adjusted personality tends to expand the good times and compress the bad. A character played by Peter Fonda, in a movie called "The Limey," expressed it best when someone was waxing dreamily over the flower-power decade known as "The Sixties."

"It was just '66," he said, "and early '67. That's all it was."

So it goes with the Smarty Jones Era, believed by some to have commenced on the day in 1999 when the late Bob Camac proposed the mating of Elusive Quality to I'll Get Along, and continuing right up to that moment, earlier this week, when a breeding syndicate pulled the rug out from under the most famous racehorse in the world.

In fact, the Season of Smarty lasted only 36 days, from that moment when Stewart Elliott turned his stick and went to work in the Kentucky Derby stretch, to the eighth pole of the Belmont Stakes, four Saturdays later, when the dreamers among the millions watching the race actually thought their hero might still be able to hold off Birdstone.

It was just May of '04, and early June. That's all it was.

It was the Derby and its giddy aftermath of cold, hard Arkansas cash raining down, five million dollars' worth, thanks to the flamboyant bonus gamble of Oaklawn's Charlie Cella.

It was that Wednesday, May 5, when Sports Illustrated hit the newsstands of America with - what's this! - a Thoroughbred racehorse on the cover, for the first time in 21 years.

It was the morning of May 8, one week after the Derby, when the ground-level doors at Philadelphia Park burst open under the pressure of some 4,000 fans who had risen early just to watch Smarty Jones gallop once around the track.

It was in Baltimore, on Day 15 of the phenomenon, when Smarty Jones took his game to even greater heights by turning the Preakness into a freak show that melted even the hard-core skeptics.

Then came Day 33, with the final hours at hand, when Smarty Jones set out on his tri-state motorcade from The Pha to sacred Belmont Park, where the Triple Crown appeared to be Smarty's for the taking. Police choppers, sirens, and flashing lights set the unforgettable stage.

Cool-headed realists maintain, with the clarity of Zen-like redboarding, that Smarty Jones would have won the Triple Crown had he been truly deserving. This is kind of like blaming Poland for being overrun by the Nazis. Had they deserved to remain a sovereign nation, they would have risen to the challenge.

Because of the Belmont, though, Smarty Jones will forever come equipped with a nagging whiff of "what if." It would have been nice to have experienced a racing world with a reigning Triple Crown winner, just for a change, just to remind us what it was like. Affirmed and 1978 seem like an awfully long time ago.

But never mind. This messy, marvelous culture of twisted priorities and rampant disappointments prefers its heroes flawed, and Smarty Jones fits neatly among them. From Dirty Harry to Spider-Man, they live out the wildest fantasies, going places most mortals view with dread. They are far from perfect, and that's just fine with us.

In the end, those 36 days were a gift, and no one is asking for a refund. Certainly not the people who were closest to the heartbeat of the beast - Roy and Pat Chapman, John and Sherry Servis, Bill Foster, Pete Van Trump, Maureen Donnelly, Mario Arriaga, and the rest of the crew at Philadelphia Park.

Some creatures leave distinct traces of their time spent on earth, like the glow from radioactive footprints. It takes forever to forget them, if we even bother to try.

The racehorse Smarty Jones was one of them, and so was David Reid, son of Mark and Barbara Reid and godson of John Servis. Full of life, generous to a fault, David Reid drowned in a swimming pool accident on July 25 and was buried last week, one day shy of his 21st birthday.

It was Mark Reid who matched John Servis with the Chapmans when they needed a trainer, which means Reid meant every bit as much to the Smarty Jones story as any of the more familiar members of the cast. Reid soared with Smarty's fortunes and consoled Servis when the ride ended in New York. Now it is John's turn to lend what strength he can to his longtime friend.

"I'm sorry more people didn't get a chance to know him," Reid told the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Servis could have said the same thing about Smarty Jones, but he didn't. The end of a promising young person under tragic circumstances has a way of putting lesser aggravations in their place. Even though he had more to offer as a racehorse, Smarty Jones is alive and well and will soon be living the life of luxury at a Kentucky breeding farm. Who would begrudge him such a paradise?

And while he will never race again - lowering his long, graceful body and leaning into the turns, putting good colts away with ease - visitors will be welcome. So make plans someday to pay him a call, admire the view, and tap into the memory of those 36 days.