06/04/2004 11:00PM

Good try, guys. Now, where's that fishing pole?


ELMONT, N.Y. - On the morning of the Arkansas Derby, back in those distant April days when Smarty Jones was a mere figment of the national imagination, John Servis wrapped up his early work and went fishing. For four hours.

"I wish I could do that today," Servis said on Saturday morning, nine hours before the 136th Belmont Stakes was scheduled to be run.

Servis was keyed up and feeling the pressure. But he had no one to blame but himself. For two solid months - through increasingly fantastic adventures in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Maryland - Servis had performed the ultimate tightrope act. By day, he was hands-on training the horse who would capture America. By night - or afternoon, at least - he had taken on the role of product spokesman, putting a fresh spotlight on the Thoroughbred racing game.

By the morning of the Belmont, Servis was feeling the weight of that game on his thick, strong shoulders. Family, friends and millions of total strangers were suddenly counting on the outcome of a single horse race.

"I just don't want people to be disappointed," the trainer said.

The only consolation was the horse. The horse was doing fine. Better than fine. For comfort, all Servis needed to do was peek into the stall, where Smarty Jones would be dozing in his ice boots, or sprawled out in the straw, oblivious to the fuss he had created.

It was hard to make a case for his defeat, except for the overwhelming evidence provided by the Triple Crown heartbreaks that littered the racing landscape since Affirmed last won in 1978.

How could Smarty Jones fight all that dark history, and which disappointment would his most closely resemble? Pleasant Colony was wrung out and half the horse he was in the Derby and Preakness by the time he got to the Belmont. Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, and Real Quiet finally succumbed to horses who had been nipping at their heels. War Emblem forgot to break. Funny Cide ran off on a tough track. Charismatic gave up a leg in pursuit of the impossible. Spectacular Bid was ridden into shocking submission.

Jack Van Berg still has nightmares about Alysheba's Belmont Stakes. The race was his to lose in 1987 when Van Berg's athletic bay colt took the track under perfect conditions, with only a mile and a half between Alysheba and the Triple Crown. As far as Van Berg was concerned, Alysheba was ready to run the race of his life.

"I wanted him on the lead," Van Berg said recently. "I knew he could gallop faster than most of those horses could run. He broke on top . . . then Chris took him back."

There is a lingering sadness in Big Jack's voice, even though 17 years have passed since Alysheba's Belmont. Chris McCarron is the first to concede that the ride that day did not represent a shining moment in his otherwise brilliant Hall of Fame career, and the family party in the McCarron suite at the Garden City Hotel after the race was definitely grim.

Time heals, eventually, and sometimes small moments rise to replace bad memories. It happened this spring when Van Berg looked up to see a former stable hand named Bill Foster at the side of Smarty Jones, identified as the John Servis stable foreman. Van Berg and Foster connected. Foster passed on Van Berg's congratulations to Servis. And in the following weeks Servis called Jack several times to talk Triple Crown.

"I didn't offer him any advice," Van Berg said the week before the Belmont. "How could I? He's done everything right by his horse. We talked about giving him a work between the Derby and the Preakness. I didn't work Alysheba. Didn't need to. Then I gave him one easy work between the Preakness and the Belmont, just like John's done with his colt. I don't see how they can beat him. But then, I didn't think Alysheba could get beat."

There's always that. They all get beat. Bobby Frankel thought he was training a Triple Crown winner in 2003, then Empire Maker's foot betrayed him before the Derby. Frankel had to settle for winning the Belmont and defeating Funny Cide.

"Smarty Jones is a good horse, maybe a great horse," Frankel said as this year's Belmont neared. "But I don't see how he can keep running this fast all the time. He's got to regress sooner or later. The only thing is, he could regress and still win; he's been that much better than the rest."

To the everlasting disappointment of the more than 100,000 in the house last Saturday - not to mention the millions of newly minted racing fans nationwide - Smarty Jones proved himself to be human, or at least mortal. By finishing second to Birdstone at the end of 1 1/2 miles, the little red colt went down fighting, but once again the Triple Crown was too much to ask.

They can never take away his Derby and his Preakness, though, and the goodwill spread by Smarty Jones could last. John Servis and his crew have a right to be proud, even though the big one got away.