06/06/2004 11:00PM

Did Elliott lose the Crown?


ELMONT, N.Y. - After the disappointment wore off and the mind was ready again for rational analysis, there was no question about the reason for the surprising loss by Smarty Jones to Birdstone in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. The evidence is overwhelming that the responsibility must be laid at the feet of jockey Stewart Elliott.

This is not the rant of a jockey hater who blames every losing bet on a bad ride, or of a Smarty Jones fan who believes this colt was unduly denied his rightful place among American racing's Triple Crown winners - although he was. This is the conclusion after breaking down the fractional times for Saturday's Belmont and placing them into historical context. And once this is done, you may conclude that Elliott's ride on Smarty Jones made Ron Franklin's much-maligned ride on Spectacular Bid in that great colt's failed attempt for the Triple Crown in 1979 look like one of patient Pat Day's patented performances.

This critique is justified not only because of what Elliott did to deny his horse a slice of history, but also because of the record amount of $63,671,706 that was bet on the Belmont Stakes - the vast majority on either Smarty Jones to win or on top in exotics.

Here's the deal: There were no problems through the first half-mile, which, after an opening quarter in 24.33 seconds, was run in a moderate 48.65. Looking at the fractions for the individual horse rather than the leader, Smarty Jones covered those distances in 24.50 and 48.99. Then, just after the turn into the backstretch, came Elliott's meltdown. He could have let Rock Hard Ten continue to carry him along - Purge was just about to quit from the rail - and let Eddington, who was moving up under urging from the outside, pass him and engage Rock Hard Ten. Instead, Elliott for some reason decided he could not surrender the front on a colt who had proven in his previous six starts that he would be extremely effective doing just that. Smarty Jones was going to get his targets to shoot at, and Elliott threw it away.

The "clock" in Elliott's head went haywire, and he nudged Smarty Jones along to maintain the lead. Was Elliott confused by the huge Belmont oval, which he hardly ever rides over? In any event, the price for Smarty Jones was a third quarter run in a ridiculous, and costly, 22.94. Remember that number. The fourth quarter was an equally taxing 23.68, meaning that Smarty Jones's middle half-mile in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, after an opening half in 48.99, and before a final half-mile in 52.23, was 46.62. Remember that number, too.

Right here, people may say that the main track at Belmont on Saturday was very fast in the three previous dirt races. It was. A track record was set at the infrequently run distance of 6 1/2 furlongs in the sixth race, and the times in the seventh and ninth races were quick, too. But, it should be noted that the Belmont main track gets very fast when it is well watered, and when the track was harrowed before the Belmont Stakes, race 11, it did not get its customary watering. So the main track for the Belmont Stakes, which came after a turf race to boot, was likely somewhat slower than for those three previous sprints.

Also, it should be noted where the two horses who goaded Elliott into making Smarty Jones work so hard through those third and fourth quarters finished. Eddington wound up fourth and Rock Hard Ten fifth, a nose apart and 11 lengths behind Smarty Jones at the wire.

Remember how I asked you to remember Smarty Jones's third quarter of 22.94 and middle half-mile of 46.62? This is where you may really get angry at Elliott's performance. The only middle half-miles in recent Belmont Stakes that are even remotely comparable to the one that Elliott asked Smarty Jones to run were the 47.40 during Affirmed and Alydar's epic battle in 1978 and the 47.56 that set up Point Given as he seized control en route to a 12 1/4-length score in 2001. The middle half-mile in Spectacular Bid's Belmont was run in 48.40. Even in Secretariat's incredible Belmont in 1973, his middle half-mile went in 48 seconds.

Secretariat, whose Belmont is the standard, ran a third quarter-mile of 23.60. Spectacular Bid, who was beaten 3 1/2 lengths in his Belmont, had the same fraction for his third quarter-mile. Smarty Jones was asked to run his third quarter-mile faster than both of them, and he was beaten only a length.

I scoured the Belmont Stakes charts back to 1973 before my vision began to blur, but it is entirely possible, if not likely, that Smarty Jones ran the fastest third quarter-mile and fastest middle half-mile in the 136-year history of the Belmont Stakes. Seattle Slew, whose running style Smarty Jones most closely fits, cakewalked through a third quarter-mile in his successful Belmont of 1977 in only 25.60, and his middle half-mile was a pokey 50.40.

It has been repeated often, and for good reason, that the best horse to be denied the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes was Spectacular Bid. Much of that had to do with what Spectacular Bid accomplished later in his career. Who knows what Smarty Jones will go on to accomplish? But to this point in their careers, Spectacular Bid has been surpassed by Smarty Jones as the best horse to be denied the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes.

What an honor.