06/02/2004 11:00PM

Luck? Smarty doesn't need it


ELMONT, N.Y. - Pete Van Trump, the rock-hard exercise rider who deals daily with Smarty Jones, called the meeting to order Thursday morning at Belmont's Barn 5 by downing a can of caffeine-rich Red Bull and ripping it in half. The message was clear. Van Trump was ready to rumble, and so was his horse.

As metaphors go, a crushed and mangled aluminum can works just fine for the 2004 Triple Crown. After clean sweeps in both Louisville and Baltimore, there is one load left to recycle on Saturday in the 136th running of the Belmont Stakes, but that shouldn't take Smarty Jones much more than a simple, majestic lap of America's largest racetrack.

Those who disagree will find no solace among the opposition. Nick Zito and Bobby Frankel are running longshots who have done nothing lately to rattle Smarty Jones, which is why they offered two versions of the same sentiment at entry time.

"You'd be insane to think you're running for anything but second," said Frankel, who trampled the Funny Cide Triple Crown last year with Empire Maker.

"I would be honored to run second to Smarty Jones," said Zito, who has already been second five times in the race.

Smarty Jones was introduced to the main stage on Thursday with Van Trump aboard and trainer John Servis alongside, as usual, atop the 23-year-old pony Butterscotch.

"Welcome to Belmont Park, buddy," said Van Trump, leaning down to give Smarty Jones a rub on the neck.

Welcome indeed, and thanks for coming. Thanks for being the kind of horse who can light up a room. Thanks for being a horse who brings nothing but class to the Triple Crown, win or lose. Thanks, most of all, for the gift of a dream.

"Dream? Let me tell you, I had the wildest dream last night you can ever imagine."

This was John Servis talking, later Thursday morning, long after Smarty Jones had been done up and put away for the day.

"I dreamt I was walking down the shed row," Servis began. "As I'm walking by I looked in on a horse, a black filly, and she was cast up against the wall. Her feet were straight up in the air, but she was just laying there, doing nothing, like she was thinking, 'Well, somebody's got to get me out of here.' I remember I was hollering to Maureen" - assistant trainer Maureen Donnelly, a real person - "and saying, 'Look how smart she is. She's been cast and nobody even saw her. Let's get in here and get her off the wall.' When I woke up I was thinking, 'Now why did I dream that?' "

Okay, amateur shrinks, have a field day. Three nights before the most important race of his life, John Servis has a dream about a smart horse.

Still, the worrywarts persist. They point to 26 years worth of Triple Crown frustrations. They blame the racing gods. They rue all the rotten luck.

For starters, the idea that there exists a highly motivated squad of deities whose main concern is something so mundane as parimutuel horse racing is blasphemous in the extreme. There are no horse racing gods. There are only horses, and because of their sacrifice, their beauty, and their innate desire to please, they are the ones worthy of our worship. Besides, if there are gods who care about sports, it must be clear by now that they prefer either the NFL or NASCAR.

As for luck, the kindest definition is "the supposed force behind the apparently causeless or random occurrence of an event or events." That opens the door to a lot of possibilities, better known as excuses.

Luck is a shrug. A small surrender. The end of a conversation. It's a way of saying "reality" without suffering the sting, or dealing with difficult questions of cause and effect. For those who profess to believe, luck is an admission that they are painfully human, bereft of the right answers at least most of the time.

Smarty Jones does not need luck. More than any Triple Crown pretender since Spectacular Bid, this little red horse has eliminated nearly all of the variables. There is no issue of weather, no question of distance, no faulty human component, and no second-best 3-year-old waiting to pounce. It is also important to note that there are no safety pins in a John Servis stall.

Servis was asked last week if he thought he'd ever get to the bottom of Smarty Jones.

"I don't know," Servis replied. "I hope not, because if I don't, that means he'll never lose a race."

If Smarty Jones loses the Belmont, something bad will have happened. Go knock on the nearest wood if you must, but that's the truth. He does too many things right, all the time. He is healthy, sound, fast, well-schooled, and oblivious to tactical adversity.

With all of this at his command, Smarty Jones doesn't need to be the second coming of Secretariat, or Affirmed, or even his patron saint, Seattle Slew. On Saturday, as the sporting world holds its breath, Smarty Jones only needs to be himself.