05/06/2004 11:00PM

Doubt Smarty Jones? Never again

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PHOENIX - He's rugged, he's professional, and he's perfect. There are no knocks on Smarty Jones. Others have needed excuses - injuries, missed time, track condition, losing shoes, whatever. Smarty just shows up and shows them up, and unless Rock Hard Ten is ready to take a step forward in the Preakness, which is possible, they're all running for second next week in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

The two knocks on Smarty Jones before the Derby were the company he kept and his pedigree. Borrego seemed to give a good line on the quality of opposition. Smarty didn't exactly drill Borrego in the Arkansas Derby, but he held him safely. Borrego's good performances in the Louisiana Derby against Wimbledon and in the Sham against Master David should have dispelled the notion that Smarty Jones was making his bones against nothing.

Then there's the pedigree, and here I got sucked in. Smarty's sire, Elusive Quality, wasn't just a one-dimensional sprinter. He was a top miler who set a world record at a mile on the turf in 1:31.63 to win the Poker at Belmont Park. It came on a rock-hard turf course, but the others who ran on the same course didn't set any record. And since when must a horse be sired by A.P. Indy or Unbridled to win the Derby? Some of the best sires were top milers. And now we're seeing the emergence of sires who were milers or had miler speed: Elusive Quality, Tale of the Cat (Lion Heart), Langfuhr (Imperialism), Grand Slam (Limehouse), Gulch (The Cliff's Edge), Wild Rush (Wimbledon, Quintons Gold Rush, and Hollywood Story). The most recent Derby winners are by sires who had miler speed: Funny Cide (Distorted Humor), War Emblem (Our Emblem), Monarchos (Maria's Mon), Fusaichi Pegasus (Mr. Prospector), Real Quiet (Quiet American), Thunder Gulch (Gulch), and Go for Gin (Cormorant). Speed wins races. Sustained speed can win the Derby.

Speaking of speed, I was also wrong about Lion Heart. I never doubted his talent; I just figured the ninth and 10th furlongs would be too much for him. But they weren't too much for him - the winner was.

I'm looking forward to the opening of future wagering on the Breeders' Cup, because I believe Lion Heart might be the second coming of Lure, and I want him in the BC Mile. There's no doubt about his speed, and no doubt about his heart, based on his races this year. And he is by Tale of the Cat, who has done well at getting turf winners. I'm hoping after the Triple Crown that trainer Patrick Biancone puts that race in Lion Heart's sights.

Two other performances on Derby Day deserve mention. Mayo on the Side must feel like Exceller after the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Exceller beat Seattle Slew that day, but most of the publicity and praise was for Seattle Slew's effort in defeat. Mayo on the Side deserves more credit than she has gotten for her gallant win against champion Azeri in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff.

Azeri ran lights out, but watch the race again, and on the far turn is there any doubt Mayo on the Side is going to win? She absolutely cruised up to Azeri, powerfully and under wraps. It was only due to Azeri's greatness that Mayo on the Side didn't pull away in a romp. Azeri's stature is secure. Now Mayo on the Side might be ready to write a story of her own, if her trainer, Carl Nafzger, keeps her progressing on the right path.

Finally, a division without a leader found one. Big things were expected from turf runner Stroll as he started his 4-year-old season this year. After all, he was brilliant as a 3-year-old, winning his last five starts, all by daylight - including four stakes (two Grade 2's and a Grade 3).

Things didn't get off to a dazzling start in Stroll's 4-year-old debut, in Keeneland's Maker's Mark Mile. Perhaps he was short. Perhaps he didn't handle the turf. Whatever it was, he never was a threat to win, finishing fifth.

But it was a different story in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Derby Day. The race was run not long after the skies opened up, and it didn't matter to Stroll that the turf course was a bog. He never looked like a loser. He handled the footing perfectly, had no trouble reeling in and dispatching Sweet Return, and was not threatened by such toughies as Mystery Giver, Burning Sun, Honor in War, and Perfect Soul. The way he galloped out, it looked as though he could go around the course again.

The Beyer Speed Figure of 105 shows he's back, and then some. If Stroll stays healthy, there's no reason trainer Bill Mott can't be in the winner's circle with him after such races as the Manhattan, United Nations, Arlington Million, and Man o' War. Stroll is that good, and there's no real emerging threat to him in the American turf brigade.