06/04/2004 11:00PM

Birdstone foils Smarty's bid

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Birdstone, with Edgar Prado riding, posts a $74 upset in the Belmont Stakes, giving his trainer, Nick Zito, his first Belmont victory.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The frustrating spring of trainer Nick Zito and the charmed life of Smarty Jones were turned upside down at Belmont Park on Saturday, when Zito-trained Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones in the final yards to score an upset in the 136th and spoil Smarty Jones's Triple Crown bid.

A hush immediately fell over a mammoth crowd that filled every nook and cranny of spacious Belmont Park, hoping to see the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. The loss was the first suffered by Smarty Jones after eight straight victories.

For Zito, the Belmont was an overdue and long-sought accomplishment for the native New Yorker. Zito had finished second in the Belmont five times previously.

This spring, however, Zito saw his best 3-year-olds suffer injuries and setbacks that prevented them from shining in earlier Triple Crown races. Eurosilver was removed from his care earlier this spring, and The Cliff's Edge missed the Preakness Stakes and Belmont after finishing fifth in the Kentucky Derby.

Birdstone, who had finished eighth in the Derby, was freshened for the Belmont, the same strategy trainer Bobby Frankel used last year when Empire Maker ended the Triple Crown quest of Funny Cide.

Smarty Jones took the lead after turning into the backstretch and turned back aggressive bids from both Eddington and Rock Hard Ten. But after drawing clear at the top of the stretch, he ran out of steam and was caught by Birdstone, who got up to win by one length under jockey Edgar Prado. Smarty Jones finished eighth lengths clear of third-place Royal Assault, who also is trained by Zito.

Birdstone's biggest previous victory came here in last fall's Champagne Stakes. Birdstone, a son of Grindstone, was bred and is owned by Marylou Whitney.

Birdstone ($74) completed 1 1/2 miles on a fast main track in 2:27.50. Smarty Jones had passed the mile mark in 1:35.44 and completed 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.52, meaning Smarty Jones needed just under 27 seconds to complete the final quarter-mile under jockey Stewart Elliott.

His trainer, John Servis, said he believed Smarty Jones did not settle as well as he had in previous races, and that ultimately cost him.

"We had a shot to make great history here, but we've had a great year," Servis said.

Had Smarty Jones won, his owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, would have earned a $5 million bonus from Visa for sweeping the Triple Crown.

Smarty Jones was attempting to join a list that includes Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed.

Elliott had a brief scare early in the day. His lone mount before the Belmont came in the third race, aboard Desert Patrol. As the field raced around the far turn, favored Grace Course broke down, with Desert Patrol right behind him. Elliott reacted quickly, taking Desert Patrol well past the middle of the track to avoid Grace Course, who was pulled up by jockey Jerry Bailey.

"I was far enough behind that horse that I was able to get out of the way, and Jerry did a good job keeping [him] up," Elliott said.

Eleven horses had swept the Triple Crown before Smarty Jones made his attempt, but none since Affirmed in 1978. That drought is the longest in Triple Crown history. In the 25 previous years, nine horses - Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide - had won the Derby and Preakness, but had failed to complete the sweep in the Belmont.

Smarty Jones was the sixth horse in the last eight years to head into the Belmont with a chance to capture the Triple Crown.

His story resonated with both hard-core racing fans and general sports enthusiasts, making this Belmont the most anticipated in years, and the most watched in history. A record crowd was expected for the Belmont, eclipsing the record 103,222 set in 2002.

Smarty Jones was sent off at 1-5, making him the shortest-priced Belmont favorite since Spectacular Bid (.30-to-1) in 1979.

Smarty Jones came into the Belmont having won all eight of his starts. After winning his first two races in November at Philadelphia Park, Smarty Jones won Aqueduct's Count Fleet Stakes on Jan. 3. Following that, Servis took Smarty Jones to Arkansas, for Oaklawn Park's series of Derby prep races for 3-year-olds.

He was perfect there. Smarty Jones captured the Southwest Stakes and the Rebel Stakes, and then the Arkansas Derby.

This year's crop of 3-year-olds had been considered one of the most inscrutable in years, which resulted in this year's Kentucky Derby drawing an overflow field. Twenty-two were entered but two - Eddington and Rock Hard Ten - were excluded because of insufficient earnings in graded stakes. Two more ended up being scratched, leaving a field of 18.

Smarty Jones was sent off the 4-1 favorite, and splashed to a 2 3/4-length victory on a sloppy track. That win, combined with his earlier scores in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, brought a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn Park.

The next stop was Pimlico, where Smarty Jones turned in the best race of his life in the Preakness on May 15. In an overpowering, dominating performance, he won by 11 1/2 lengths, the largest margin in Preakness history, setting the stage for Saturday's Belmont.