04/04/2003 12:00AM

Deaths of Smarten, Shelter Half leave void

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Maryland has lost two of its most famous pensioners, the venerable stallions Smarten, 27, and Shelter Half, 28, each succumbing to infirmities of old age within a week in late March.

A quarter-century has passed since Smarten and Shelter Half each began his odyssey, but the impact of each continues to be felt today.

Smarten, who stood at Northview Stallion Station (and previously Windfields Farm) in Chesapeake City, sired 47 stakes winners. Shelter Half, whose lifelong home was Glade Valley Farms in Frederick, is represented by 21 stakes winners. Both horses have also become excellent broodmare sires. It's nearly impossible to scan today's past performances and not have one of their names pop up.

For Jim Ryan, memories came flooding back after news reached him about Smarten, the prolific derby winner whom he bred in the name of Ryehill Farm and raced in partnership with his high school friend Bob Kirkham. Some of their best times in the business were spent following Smarten through the summer and fall of 1979.

Trained by Hall of Famer Woody Stephens, Smarten was "the calmest of any horse I have raced," says Ryan. "Woody would say 'he has no nerves.' " Stephens, who once described Smarten as a "tough sucker . . . He could get off the plane and just run anywhere they put up the money," proved the point. Smarten made 17 starts during his 3-year-old season, and his connections fully admitted they ran him anywhere Spectacular Bid wasn't.

That schedule took Smarten from Maryland across the Midwest. A dark bay son of Cyane, Smarten won six consecutive stakes races that summer, including four derbies - the Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and American - and still holds the 1 1/8-mile track record at Thistledown that he set while winning the Grade 2 Ohio Derby in 1:47.40. In the final start of his career, Smarten finally faced Spectacular Bid in the Grade 2 Meadowlands Cup.

"Spectacular Bid drew off to win by three lengths, but Smarten was in a tremendous battle with Valdez for second," Ryan recalled.

As Smarten's entire entourage cheered like mad, Smarten and Valdez hit the wire together, with the photo giving the edge to Smarten. Celebrating into the night, Ryan recalls, "In the next day's New York papers, it was written 'What would they have done if they had won!' It was a nice ending to Smarten's race career."

Smarten earned $716,426 over two seasons and was one of two top-class runners in 1979 produced by Ryehill Farm's broodmare Smartaire. The other was Eclipse Award-winning juvenile filly Smart Angle.

Smarten retired to Windfields Farm, at the same location that Northview occupies today, to begin his 19-year stud career which produced 600 foals. In his first crop he struck gold when Classy 'n Smart was named champion 3-year-old filly in Canada. She has also become Smarten's finest producing daughter, being the dam of three graded stakes winners, including Dance Smartly, one of this year's Racing Hall of Fame finalists. Smarten is the broodmare sire of nearly 50 stakes winners.

The speedy Shelter Half was purchased by Fourbros Stable from the estate of Christopher Chenery at the Eastern fall yearling sale in 1976 for $14,500. "He had impeccable bloodlines," says Bob Manfuso, one of the Fourbros team. A son of Tentam out of Alabama Stakes winner Gay Matelda, Shelter Half was trained by Toughy Hacker for Manfuso, his brother John A. (Tom) Manfuso Jr., and brothers George and Geoffrey Huguely, hence the stable name.

On March 25, 1978, Shelter Half won Pimlico's six-furlong Hirsch Jacobs Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths over Star de Naskra and thoughts were entertained of going to the Preakness. However, the colt was kept at shorter distances, and he went on to win a total of 14 races from 31 starts, his six stakes victories all at less than a mile.

Shelter Half got off quickly at stud. When his first crop of 18 foals came to the races in 1984, he had eight winners from 11 starters, three of them stakes winners. As a freshman sire he ranked third on Maryland's juvenile sires list, behind only Smarten and Northern Dancer.

Shelter Half sired 367 named foals in 20 crops, including two just-turned yearlings. His durable daughter In the Curl, who made 85 starts, won 26 times, finished in the money in 33 stakes and earned $749,891, is his leading runner.

Shelter Half's daughters are his legacy and as a broodmare sire he is represented by such runners as graded stakes winners Royal Haven, Weather Vane, Latin Dancer, and Belterra.