06/07/2004 12:00AM

It's a happy ending after all


ELMONT. N.Y. - It was a sad sight, recalled John Servis, an image that would not go away. The man sitting by himself at a Baltimore restaurant was about as successful as anyone in his business could be. But there he was, alone with his dark thoughts, the weight of the world on his shoulders, his face a map of unrelenting woe.

"I couldn't even imagine what the guy was going through," Servis said. "After what he started with at the beginning of the year, and have to go through all that hardship?"

At the time, Servis was on top of the racing world, poised with Derby winner Smarty Jones to add the Preakness and then launch a full-throated attack on the Belmont Stakes. At the other end of the emotional spectrum resided Nick Zito - the man dining alone - picking through the debris of a savage spring that was littered with the disappointments of Eurosilver, The Cliff's Edge, and Birdstone.

"Sure, I've gone through things like that before," Servis said. "But not at his level. That's got to be different. At my level, you don't have the media all over you, all the expectations."

That should change, and soon. The events surrounding the 2004 Belmont Stakes gave Servis a taste of a grand future, for certainly he will be in demand by prime patrons everywhere. To come within a length of winning the greatest prize in horse racing with a horse bred to run no more than a couple of blocks should rank forever among the finest achievements of his craft.

Like spaceships and baseballs, however, racehorses must adhere to certain incontrovertible rules of physical reality. One of the most inviolate is the tyranny of pace. Smarty Jones simply went too fast during the interior quarters of the 12-furlong Belmont to have anything left at the end, when it counted most.

That is small consolation for those of us who believed that Smarty Jones could defy even the hard realities of the game. The stern father-figures who warned against excessive enthusiasm were right, although most of them have refrained from crowing, "I told you so," because most of them were rooting for Smarty, too.

But this time it was not a matter of simply wishing for an end to the Triple Crown drought. This time, it was personal. Not since Secretariat in 1973 had an animal and his people engendered such a depth and breadth of public devotion, which is why the Smarty Jones loss was tougher to take.

The five stages of dealing with Triple Crown disappointment were first published in 1969 by the Swiss psychiatrist and noted handicapper, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Her work has since been interpreted as a blueprint for the psychological sequence involved in the process of dying - probably because the book was called "On Death and Dying" - although anyone can plainly see it was inspired by the heart-breaking loss of the previously unbeaten Majestic Prince in the Belmont Stakes that same year.

As applied to the trauma of 2004, the stages include denial ("I can't figure this out," said Mark Hennig, trainer of fourth-place Eddington. "How do you come up with this horse? You could throw a dart and not hit this one."), anger ("So the people's horse won," cracked one bitter wag. "The rich people's horse."), bargaining ("I suppose this won't be a good week to get a deal on a Chapman Ford," sighed Racing Form colleague Dave Grening."), depression ("I'm so very, very sorry," said Marylou Whitney, Birdstone's gracious owner.) and, finally, acceptance, as articulated by John Servis himself.

"My job was getting our horse to the Kentucky Derby," Servis said. "As far as I'm concerned, winning that race is as good as it gets. Anything after that has been gravy."

When Empire Maker ended Funny Cide's Triple Crown quest in 2003, the face of victory was worn by an absentee Arab owner; a chilly, all-business jockey; and a trainer who didn't mind wearing the black hat. There were no apologies forthcoming from Khalid Abdullah, Jerry Bailey, or Bobby Frankel.

Birdstone came wrapped in a different package. Never in the known history of racing has a group of unpopular winners been so impossible to dislike.

Edgar Prado did his job like a good soldier, then accepted victory with grace and style. He sympathized publicly with Stewart Elliott, praised Smarty Jones, and carried a peace sign into the winner's circle in support of American troops.

For three generations and 10 Belmont winners, the Whitney family has nurtured a quality patch of the old real estate upon which the American Thoroughbred game was raised. Marylou Whitney is building upon the traditions of her late husband, C.V. Whitney, with the aide of her present husband, John Hendrickson. Basically, these people have been willing to lose money on horse racing for more than 100 years and still come back for more.

As for Zito, what's left to know that he hasn't told us already? That one, final burst by Birdstone erased the cruel spring of 2004, during which the news from the Zito stable was almost always bad. When he called this Belmont the greatest victory of his career, he was right. In terms of impact, no race since Ruffian's 1975 match race disaster has opened so many eyes to the realities of the game.

In the end, Bob Baffert still gets credit for the right line after surviving Silver Charm's loss of 1997 Triple Crown. And it's still the best advice.

Cheer up. Nobody died.