08/04/2004 11:00PM

Grabbing cash like all the rest

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - What a difference a week makes. Wasn't it just Aug. 1 or so when Smarty Jones's owners were still candidates for sainthood after repeatedly saying they wanted to race their colt as a 4-year-old - while Azeri's camp was being fitted for tar and feathers for cruelly continuing to race a clearly finished champion?

Smarty Jones's official retirement last Monday has angered and saddened many of those who fell under his spell this spring, and rightfully so. It was no great surprise insofar as we have been down this road so often in recent years, with Point Given, Fusaichi Pegasus, War Emblem, and Empire Maker. The lure of collecting stud fees a year sooner proved too strong to race these valuable 3-year-olds the following season.

Smarty Jones, however, was supposed to be different. His elderly owners, Pat and Roy Chapman, kept saying he would race next year if he could, and there was reason to believe them. They didn't particularly need the money a year sooner, especially after collecting a $5 million bonus, and they really seemed dedicated to watching him race and sharing him with the public instead of converting him into cash. They and his adoring fans and promoters constantly played the class warfare card, painting Smarty as some blue-collar horse of the people and a refreshing change from those evil bluebloods and sheikhs who supposedly are only in it for the money.

Now Smarty is being retired sooner than anyone like him, and we get a story about this being the "right thing to do for the horse" that rings totally false. Smarty Jones's injuries are minor and would have had no effect on his ability to return to training this fall and race next year - according to his own veterinarians.

To pretend that this is a humane act of regretful retirement is not only disingenuous but an insult to those horses with serious injuries who really couldn't race again. It also makes you appreciate the sportsmanship of those owners who behaved differently in the same situation and raced their stars at 4 - and not just in what now seem like the olden days of Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid. More recently, Bob and Beverly Lewis, with Silver Charm, and Mike Pegram, with Real Quiet, resisted the lure of syndication dollars and watched their horses flourish in the handicap division.

At least Robert Clay, who syndicated and will stand Smarty Jones at his Three Chimneys Farm, had the decency to say, "There's no hiding that economic decisions played a factor."

The Chapmans, however, took offense at the news conference - as did their cheerleaders at the Television Games Network - when the writer Andrew Beyer properly asked the question on the mind of every racing fan: Does everyone in this business just take the money and run?

Another unfortunate aspect of the Smarty Jones announcement was that it took all the attention away from Azeri's gallant performance in Saratoga's Go for Wand Handicap the day before, which was not only a moment of vindication for her handlers but also a race for the ages that deserves to outlive Smarty Jones's 35 days of fame.

Reasonable people could differ on whether Azeri was racing beyond her prime after three straight losses, and had she trailed the field again Sunday it probably would have been time for her to retire. Instead she rebounded from those defeats (all, incidentally, in one-turn races that clearly are not her forte) with one of her best and bravest races, turning back multiple Grade 1 winner Sightseek and champion Storm Flag Flying to become North America's leading female earner ever.

It was one of those rare occasions when an entire racetrack, even though the majority had bet against her, rose to applaud a true champion. It was not just for the moment but for her whole career, since some of us in the East took longer to appreciate and embrace her than Californians did. Owner Michael Paulson and trainer D. Wayne Lukas deserve thanks for continuing to race Azeri, and allowing her to burnish a record that puts her among the best mares of all time.

Paulson could have retired Azeri after her Horse of the Year campaign in 2002 or after her long winning streak ended last fall. He could have sold her as a broodmare for more than she can possibly earn on the racetrack. Instead he chose to run her instead of taking the money.

Azeri, now 6 years old and 16 for 21, is probably in her final season of racing. She and Smarty Jones will both become eligible for induction into Racing's Hall of Fame five years hence, and it's clear that only one of them belongs. It's not Smarty Jones's fault he is being yanked from racing, but you shouldn't put a horse in the Hall of Fame off a nine-race career with just two Grade 1 victories. It's a shame he wasn't given the chance to achieve more or show he was any better than Charismatic or War Emblem, neither of whom deserves to enter the Hall, but his owners chose not to give him that opportunity.