06/03/2004 12:00AM

Crowning Moments: A record victory in the Preakness


BALTIMORE, May 15 - John Servis said he had purposely kept a tight rein on Smarty Jones in the two weeks leading up to Saturday's 129th Preakness Stakes because he wanted Smarty Jones to "beat somebody up." In a little less than two minutes here at Pimlico Race Course, Smarty Jones delivered a powerful knockout punch.

In a dominating, electrifying performance that brought an appreciative roar from the crowd of 112,668, Smarty Jones seized the lead from pacesetter Lion Heart at the top of the stretch and rolled to a record-setting 11 1/2-length victory in the second leg of the Triple Crown. The margin of victory was the largest in Preakness history, eclipsing the 10-length margin of Survivor in the first Preakness in 1873.

The victory was the eighth straight for Smarty Jones, who has yet to be defeated and seems to be getting better with every start. After capturing the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago at Churchill Downs, he will now head to the June 5 Belmont Stakes with a chance to become the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first since Affirmed in 1978. The 26-year Triple Crown drought is the longest since the Triple Crown was first won in 1919 by Sir Barton.

If Smarty Jones captures the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, he will earn a $5 million bonus from Visa, which sponsors the Triple Crown. He already has earned one $5 million bonus, from Oaklawn Park, for sweeping that track's Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby as well as the Kentucky Derby. A victory in the Belmont would make Smarty Jones the richest racehorse in history in only nine starts.

The Preakness, at 1 3/16 miles, is the shortest of the Triple Crown races, but Smarty Jones won by the largest margin of victory in a Triple Crown race since Point Given's 12 1/4-length victory in the 2001 Belmont Stakes.

It was a hot, steamy afternoon at Pimlico, but Smarty Jones, one of the smallest horses in the field, did not wilt. He weathered a delay while the horses were being saddled, when Imperialism lost his left front shoe and had to be re-shod. And Smarty Jones patiently waited in the gate when Rock Hard Ten acted up while being loaded.

Smarty Jones, with regular rider Stewart Elliott aboard, covered 1 3/16 miles 1:55.59 over a track that was fast but dull. The time was slightly faster than the one recorded by Southern Image in Friday's Pimlico Special, for older horses.

Smarty Jones was sent off the prohibitive 3-5 favorite and paid $3.40. He was the shortest-priced Preakness winner since Spectacular Bid paid $2.20 in 1979.

As in the Derby, Lion Heart broke fastest from the gate and attempted to lead from start to finish. But Smarty Jones broke even sharper than he did in the Derby and was lapped on Lion Heart as the field came by the stands for the first time.

Lion Heart covered the first quarter-mile in 23.65 seconds. As is his custom, he raced well out from the rail.

Lion Heart continued to lead into the backstretch after a half-mile in 47.32 seconds, but Smarty Jones was stalking him, appearing ready to pounce at any time. Imperialism, Eddington, and Rock Hard Ten all were fanned wide around the first turn.

As the field raced down the backstretch and into the far turn, Smarty Jones began to creep closer to the front. Lion Heart was racing so far off the rail that Elliott elected to take Smarty Jones inside of the leader to save precious ground after six furlongs in 1:11.53.

Smarty Jones was on Lion Heart in an instant. He sailed past him as the field straightened away in the lane and bounded clear to joyous applause and heartfelt, throaty cheers. Smarty Jones covered one mile in 1:36.44 and more than doubled his margin in the final furlong after leading by five lengths at the eighth pole.

Rock Hard Ten, fanned at least five paths wide on the far turn, bravely kept to his task, and got up for second, a terrific performance for a horse making only the fourth start of his career and his first since the Santa Anita Derby six weeks earlier.

"I was no match for the winner," said Gary Stevens, who rode Rock Hard Ten. "My horse ran a hell of a race. I'm sure the start took a little something out of him, but I think I just saw something spectacular."

Rock Hard Ten finished two lengths in front of Eddington, who got up in the last jump to beat Lion Heart by a head for third.

Imperialism was fifth and was followed, in order, by Sir Shackleton, Borrego, Little Matth Man, Song of the Sword, and Water Cannon. The Cliff's Edge was scratched Friday because of a bruise to his right front foot.

Smarty Jones, a 3-year-old colt by Elusive Quality, was bred and is owned by the Someday Farm of Roy and Patricia Chapman. Smarty Jones is based at Philadelphia Park, which will become the center of the racing universe for most of the next three weeks, until Smarty Jones heads to New York for his date with destiny.