06/10/2004 11:00PM

Internal clocks often undependable


LEXINGTON, Ky. - If you thought Smarty Jones had an excellent chance of winning the Belmont coming into the race, how much more would you have liked his prospects if you had known that it would take a Beyer Speed Figure of only 101 to win the race? And how low would the fair odds have been on him under those circumstances? Unfortunately, the best Smarty Jones could manage was a Beyer Figure of 100, the sixth-lowest number from his nine career races, and he became the latest disappointment during the 26-year drought since Affirmed won the Triple Crown.

Everyone has an opinion or two on the Belmont. Here are mine. I believe that jockey Stewart Elliott had little or no awareness of how fast the swift third- and fourth quarter-mile fractions were, and rode an imprudent race. I also believe that Smarty Jones contributed to the debacle by not being as willing as usual to conserve his speed. Factor in a bounce following his career-best Beyer of 118 in the Preakness, and you had all of the ingredients necessary to lose a race that appeared to be close to a slam-dunk going in.

Even so, a happy ending was still possible. If Elliott had ridden a more patient race, he could have made up for the fact that Smarty Jones did not bring his "A" game to the Belmont. If Smarty Jones hadn't peaked in the Preakness, he might have run well enough to prevail in the Belmont despite Elliott's ride. I rooted just as hard as anyone for Smarty Jones as the Belmont unfolded, but now that I have had a chance to review the fractions, and the Beyer Figures, I have to wonder how satisfying it would have been if Smarty Jones had held on to win a photo in the Belmont. Do we really want our next Triple Crown winner to stagger home in 27 seconds for the last quarter? How much of a champion would he have been while scoring with a low Beyer of 101? Those are not the numbers of a horse who deserves to be grouped with the great 3-year-olds of the past. My regret is not that Smarty Jones lost. It is that he was not good enough to be a deserving champ by winning decisively, with a much better Beyer, despite Elliott's ride. I have already waited 26 years for the next great 3-year-old, so I would rather wait a little longer than settle for a hollow victory.

Although Elliott's mistake stands out because it occurred in such an important race, it is not unique. Jockeys are traditionally expected to have a clock in their heads, but I believe that in most cases it is a myth. The proof is that comparable errors in pace judgment can be found on most days at most tracks, and no jockey, including the most famous names in the business, is immune. It is unfortunate, because race results would be truer if jockeys were better at judging fractional times. But since they aren't, why not try to profit from it? You probably won't make much money by betting on Smarty Jones next time, but good bets can also be found in other less famous races.

Principle applies in midweek claimer

Take a look at the chart of Churchill's eighth race last Wednesday. French Account is a 3-year-old filly who had been claimed out of her previous race, a $30,000 nonwinners-of-two, by Tom Amoss. It was logical to expect improvement in this $30,000 claiming race limited to 3-year-old fillies, since Amoss wins with 33 percent of his claims first time out, with a healthy $3.06 return on investment.

French Account had never been closer than fourth at the first call of any of her previous seven races, including the three races at longer distances than Wednesday's six-furlong sprint. She broke 1 1/2 lengths behind the rest of the field that day, then rushed up to grab the lead through a hot 21.54-second opening quarter that was much stronger than the 21.83-second fraction that had been run by older males in an $80,000 optional claiming race four races earlier. She battled through a 44.88-second half-mile, and didn't give up the lead until midstretch, then weakened to finish fourth, beaten by 2 1/2 lengths.

I don't know if jockey Calvin Borel was riding according to the instructions he was given, or if he was ad-libbing, or if French Account suddenly decided to be unwilling to rate kindly. The guess is that if Borel had realized how fast they were going early, he might have ridden the race more conservatively. Nevertheless, for betting purposes the reason is not important, as long as French Account receives a more patient ride next time. If that is the case, she will be a good win bet vs. similar company.