06/09/2004 11:00PM

Pace made the race Smarty couldn't win


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - It is among the oldest alibis in horse racing. When a horse loses, blame the jockey. Blame Stewart Elliott.

More than 1,600 fans who responded to a poll on the Daily Racing Form website (www.drf.com) agree that Elliott screwed up the ride on Smarty Jones, thereby costing him the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown. It is not that simple, of course.

Elliott feels bad, but he will get over it. Will fans? Or will they be fooled by the "jockey-moved-too-soon" rationale, however shallow? If so, too bad. Because blaming the jockey disallows appreciation of the fascinating handicapping influence of pace. The blame-jockey alibi implies that riders control the preferences of their mounts. They do not.

Jockeys do affect pace, but they cannot command a horse to like - or dislike - the tempo. Smarty Jones is a presser whose running style is to attack. Going into the Belmont, he had been positioned one-two at the pace call in all eight starts. Smarty Jones does not win by producing explosive finishes. He wins races by playing offense, by putting away his rivals in the early going.

As a basic handicapping factor, pace might be the most difficult to understand. And so people stop trying. Pace handicapping is not always as easy as finding a lone front-runner, or a deep closer in a field filled with speed. The in-between variations are wide, and made more confusing when a race unfolds unexpectedly.

What transpired in the Belmont is that three other horses produced enough speed to compromise Smarty Jones. Many of us did not see it coming. Front-runner Purge was always going to use his speed, of course. Yet there were other possibilities. What if Eddington produced more speed while adding blinkers? What if fast-working Rock Hard Ten also used his speed?

The strategies employed by other horses were beyond Elliott's control. Many blame him anyway. And if the jockey is the rightful recipient of blame, it sure makes things easy. It means not having to grapple with a misunderstood complexity.

Like the overall art of handicapping, the subject of pace is one that even longtime handicappers continue to study. Unfortunately, some stop trying and cover their tracks by pointing to an easy target. Blaming the jockey conceals miscomprehension of pace. A key factor such as pace cannot be dumbed down and passed off as jockey error.

Smarty Jones lost the Belmont for many reasons, none that include mistaken strategy. Anyway, most of the time a single factor is not the primary reason for victory or defeat. Still, beginning handicappers often ask - what is the most important factor? The question cannot be answered.

Horses win and lose based largely on four interwoven concepts: current condition, class, speed, and pace. It's a package deal. A horse in top current condition usually cannot win a race in which he is outclassed. A top-class horse usually cannot win a top-class race unless he is in top form. A horse in form usually cannot beat a faster horse.

And as shown in the Belmont, a horse that is in top current form, established at the class, with an edge in speed figures, usually cannot win if the pace scenario comes up wrong. That is one of the key reasons why Smarty Jones lost.

Jockeys can only do so much. Elliott could not take back on Smarty Jones and turn him into a stretch-runner. Imagine the outcry if he had taken hold and conceded the very advantage that worked so well in all previous eight starts.

Jockeys sometimes do commit mistakes that cost their horse the race. But most of the time the jockey is only along for the ride, guiding their mounts inside and around other horses, and rationing energy reserves in accord to the horse's established running style. Sometimes, it does not work out as planned.

Smarty Jones may have lost the Belmont because of campaign fatigue. It was his third start in five weeks; he was the only horse to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

Smarty Jones may have lost the Belmont because of pedigree. He outran his sprinter-miler bloodlines in both the Derby and Preakness, but 1 1/2 miles can be an awful long trip.

Smarty Jones may have lost the Belmont because the race did not set up for him, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. A fast pace will undo a front-runner. It is exactly what happened in the Belmont.

What could Elliott have done different? He could have anchored Smarty Jones behind the other three horses that were intent on showing speed. To his credit, Elliott understood that it made little sense to sacrifice his mount's primary weapon - tactical speed.

Smarty Jones got keen. He wanted to go on with it. The colt, who had a solitary target in most recent races, suddenly found himself surrounded by other front-runners. Smarty Jones did not like it. Elliott did the right thing by allowing Smarty Jones to run away from his challengers.

He put away second betting choice Rock Hard Ten, third choice Purge, and fourth choice Eddington. Should Elliott have considered Birdstone a threat? Did anyone?

The issue of pace is among the most complex in handicapping. But there it is. A horseplayer can try to understand it by employing logic. Either that, or point fingers at the jockey.