06/30/2004 12:00AM

Last word on Smarty's near-miss


PHILADELPHIA - With time comes perspective. The emotion of the moment lessens. Rationality returns.

A month after the Belmont Stakes, after looking at the tape dozens of times, I have a few conclusions while admitting there is still much about the race I do not understand.

Here is what I think I know.

* If Jerry Bailey had been riding Smarty Jones, the colt would have won the Triple Crown. And that has nothing to do with Stewart Elliott.

* The quick fractions on the backstretch had something to do with the prevailing wind. That is reasonably obvious when you consider the slow opening and closing fractions through the stretch and remember what the breeze felt like that day. Officially, the wind was blowing at 12 miles per hour.

* Edgar Prado put Birdstone under a strong ride not long after the half-mile pole and the little colt just kept coming.

* Smarty Jones ran all the obvious contenders into the ground.

That much I know.

There is much I don't know.

Much of the post-race speculation focused on the rides of Elliott, Bailey on Eddington, and Alex Solis on Rock Hard Ten.

Some think Elliott, sensing a quick pace, should have tried to take Smarty behind Eddington and Rock Hard Ten on the backstretch. That requires two assumptions. One is that Smarty, who is so competitive he does not want to be passed, would have allowed it. The other is that Bailey would have wanted it.

Bailey really dictated how the race would be run by his actions on the first turn and shortly after the horses turned down the backstretch. The jockey gave Eddington a slight tap on the shoulder as they started into the turn. He also began to put the horse under a bit of a ride. Bailey asked for a bit more as Eddington hit the backstretch, with Smarty, Rock Hard Ten, and Purge just a few lengths in front of him and a mile still to run.

As I watch the race, it appears as if Bailey could have dropped into fourth behind what, at that point, looked like the possibility of three horses battling for the lead. Given that Bailey is the smartest rider in the country and intimately familiar with what wins and does not win at Belmont Park, that would have seemed like the most reasonable strategy.

Instead, Bailey stayed outside and set sail after Smarty Jones. That race ended quickly when Smarty dragged Elliott right into a clear lead as the fractions began to quicken. If - and I don't think it would have been possible - Elliott had tried to take Smarty back at that point, my guess is that Bailey would have stayed right to his outside, making Smarty as uncomfortable as possible. Thus, the take- Smarty-back theory seems like wishful thinking. And, even if you accept it was possible, my guess is that it would have been counterproductive.

At the moment it was obvious Eddington could not keep up, Rock Hard Ten started to roll to Smarty's inside. It does not appear to me that Solis was doing a lot of riding when Rock Hard Ten's run began. It looks like Rock Hard Ten just decided to go. And given the size and power of that colt, I am not sure there is anything a jockey could do to hold him back. Anyway, as everybody knows, Rock Hard Ten pressured Smarty into the turn as Solis really did begin to ride him.

When Smarty opened up on the turn, I think it had less to do with him than it had to do with Eddington and Rock Hard Ten beginning to fade. If you notice, the distance between Smarty and Birdstone really does not change much. Thus, Birdstone also had to run a very hot fifth quarter-mile just to stay in the race. In fact, Birdstone, little noticed while six to eight lengths behind the front-runners, had been running quick fractions for quite some time. That was the wind again.

When Smarty hit the top of the stretch, it was obvious what was going down. His smooth stride was shortening. He was getting tired. Perhaps, it was the way the race was run. Perhaps, it was the distance. Perhaps, it was the grind of the Triple Crown and all the training that got him to that moment.

I have heard the Elliott should have saved something for the finish theory. Why? Was he really supposed to be concerned that Birdstone, 36-1 for a reason, was going to run him down. Why would he think that? Why would anybody?

Birdstone's stride held together, but he wasn't exactly flying. He just kept coming as Smarty got tired. The 101 Beyer explained that, after those hot fractions from the mile pole to the quarter pole, even the top two were slowing down dramatically.

Races are often decided by circumstance. That is exactly what went down in the Belmont Stakes. Several times per day at racetracks all over the country, the best horse does not win. Smarty Jones was the best horse. He did not win.

Smarty's trainer John Servis recently joked that he would like to get Birdstone in a match race. He called the Belmont result a "fluke'" and he wasn't knocking Birdstone or his trainer Nick Zito, a man he respects. He was just stating the facts.

Bailey and Servis talked a few days after the race when so much was written about Bailey's perceived role in Smarty's defeat. So where exactly does Bailey fit into all this? If he is riding Smarty Jones, he isn't riding Eddington. And the race almost certainly would have played out differently.