06/24/2004 12:00AM

It's wrong to pamper Smarty


NEW YORK - It sounded too good to be true that Smarty Jones would run in both the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall, and it was. The goal now with a colt worth $40 million to the breeding industry appears to be to protect his value by running him in as many soft spots as possible. So instead of the Gold Cup, he will be headed for the Pegasus Handicap at The Meadowlands, a race that is being scheduled for his maximum convenience.

There's a school of thought that the dates and conditions of major races should be set in stone well in advance, giving the appearance of fairness to all possible contenders rather than tailoring a race to suit one particular horse, but that school has never held much sway in New Jersey.

There is nothing underhanded or unprecedented about the state's current full-court press to attract the sport's top box-office draw. The dates and purses of the biggest races at Monmouth and The Meadowlands - the Haskell, Pegasus, and Meadowlands Cup - have often been altered on the fly over the years to ensure the participation of stars ranging from Alysheba to Touch Gold, and extracurricular appearance fees helped get Point Given and War Emblem to the Jersey Shore.

Officials of the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority and the Smarty Jones camp made no attempt to conceal the fact that this year's Pegasus will be run whenever it best fits Smarty Jones's schedule. You can currently pencil it in for Oct. 1, the night before the Gold Cup and 29 days before the Classic, but it might be a good idea to buy refundable plane tickets to Newark in case Smarty's camp wants to change the date as it draws closer.

The Pegasus, once a Grade 1 race, slipped to Grade 2 status and then last year was not even run after being downgraded to a Grade 3 for 2003. That is about right for a handicap for 3-year-olds on the eve of the Gold Cup, the race in which potential champion 3-year-olds are supposed to run, as long as they're in the New York metropolitan area that weekend.

Instead, Smarty Jones's remaining career seems likely to consist of three races: two virtual walkovers, in the Pennsylvania Derby and the Pegasus, races restricted to 3-year-olds and unlikely to draw even the best of that bunch; followed by the Classic, where he will finally meet older horses and take one shot against the likes of Pleasantly Perfect and Southern Image - if he makes it that far. Cynics can be forgiven for wondering whether he would actually contest the Classic as opposed to heading straight to the breeding shed with a record of 10 for 11.

Smarty Jones is a very talented racehorse whose cultural popularity exceeds his actual record of achievements on the racetrack. He has run in only three Grade 1 races in his career, the three Triple Crown events, and now is scheduled to run in just one more while facing older horses merely once. If he doesn't win the Classic, his legacy and place in history will be limited.

Coming back in the Pennsylvania Derby is understandable, given both the appropriateness of a relatively easy spot for a comeback after an extended summer break and the unique chance to put his home track on the map. Running in the Pegasus rather than the Gold Cup, though, is a simple matter of ducking competition, a generally advisable position in racing but one that you hope is occasionally subjugated to sporting concerns when it comes to a horse who was a length away from being proclaimed one of the greatest ever to have set hoof upon a racetrack.

If Smarty Jones is going to be compared to the great horses of the 1970's, as he repeatedly was during the Triple Crown, how about campaigning him like one? After his Belmont, Secretariat ran six more times, including the Whitney, Marlboro Cup, Woodward, and Man o'War. When Seattle Slew made it back to the races at 4, he ran at The Meadowlands - losing at 1-5 to Dr. Patches in the Paterson - but then ran in the Marlboro, Woodward, and Gold Cup. Affirmed took on Seattle Slew in that Gold Cup and Spectacular Bid took on Affirmed in the next one, instead of seeking an easy payday against second-rate 3-year-olds.

The racing world has changed since then, but it would be nice if the idea of the best horses running against the best competition in the biggest races could stay the same. Smarty Jones took an unusually soft road to the Triple Crown, understandably skipping the major preps while pursuing a unique $5 million bonus that led through Arkansas, but now that he has arrived as an $8 million earner and a $40 million stallion prospect, his Grade 3 days should be behind him.