11/30/2005 1:00AM

Imagine if Smarty Jones raced at 4


PHILADELPHIA - What if Secretariat had raced against Seattle Slew? What if Native Dancer had run against Count Fleet? What if Spectacular Bid had raced Cigar?

The what ifs in horse racing give us a subject for endless debate - without answers, of course.

As this racing year played out, one what if kept bouncing around in my head: What if Smarty Jones had raced in 2005?

Without rehashing the debate over Smarty's retirement, this really does appear to be a what if with an answer. The answer is in the 2005 performances of all those horses that were strung out behind Smarty in 2004.

Last year, Rock Hard Ten, Borrego, Eddington, Purge, and Imperialism raced against Smarty a combined 12 times. They finished a combined 147 lengths behind him, an average of 12 lengths per race. That would qualify as domination.

All of those horses got better as 4-year-olds, a lot better. Counting Rock Hard Ten's Malibu Stakes (really a 2005 race run at the end of 2004), the Smarty Five won six Grade 1 and four Grade 2 stakes this year.

Rock Hard Ten (22 1/2 lengths behind Smarty in two races) won the Strub, Santa Anita Handicap, and Goodwood. Borrego (33 1/4 lengths behind in three races) won the Pacific Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Eddington (24 1/2 lengths back in two tries) won the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Pimlico Special.

Purge (47 lengths behind in three races) just won the Cigar Mile. Imperialism (19 3/4 lengths back in two tries) won the Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Handicap.

The Smarty Five had 19 triple-digit Beyers and earned $3.7 million. Rock Hard Ten, Borrego, Eddington, and Purge combined for six Beyers of 110 or better.

So, what if?

If Smarty Jones had improved from 3 to 4 at anything approaching the same ratio as his contemporaries, it would not have been hard to imagine him getting into Ghostzapper Beyer territory.

Consider Smarty's two-month Beyer run in the spring of 2004 - Rebel (112), Arkansas Derby (109), Kentucky Derby (107), Preakness (118). If Smarty was capable of that without any of the spacing so common among the top modern horses, you really have to think that, if John Servis had been able to map out a campaign, almost anything really was possible.

Is it also possible that Smarty Jones peaked early, that what we saw was all we were going to get. It is possible, just not likely. Remember, Smarty Jones did not make his first start until Nov. 9, 2003. The Derby was just his seventh lifetime race.

The game has changed so dramatically in the last quarter-century that it is hard to make valid comparisons to the last time truly great 3-year-olds raced as 4-year-olds. But if you accept that Smarty, at 3, can at least be mentioned with Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid, and remember just how awesome those three legends were as 4-year-olds, it does make an intriguing what if.

The two best American horses this year were Afleet Alex and Saint Liam. One will be Horse of the Year. The other will finish second in the voting. What if they had raced each other? What if they had raced against Smarty Jones?

The fastest American horse this year, just as last year, was Ghostzapper. What if he had lasted longer than that one memorable race in the Met Mile? What if the Ghost had raced Afleet Alex and Saint Liam?

What if a 5-year-old Ghostzapper had raced a 4-year-old Smarty Jones? What if?