05/17/2004 12:00AM

Pimlico romp brings to mind the "G" word


BALTIMORE - The term "great" is used far too loosely in Thoroughbred racing. When great is connected to names like Silver Charm and War Emblem, all it does is devalue its meaning by diluting the accomplishments of horses who were truly great, like Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed, to name just three.

Greatness cannot be contrived or manufactured. When such an attempt is made, and the name Funny Cide comes to mind here, the unavoidable outcome is disappointment and a sour aftertaste. Greatness just is. And when greatness surfaces, it is unmistakable.

All of this bears review after Smarty Jones ran away with Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. The June 5 Belmont Stakes is the final obstacle between Smarty Jones and the honor of his becoming just the 12th Triple Crown winner in American racing history and only the second undefeated winner alongside Seattle Slew. I want so badly to invoke a term I rarely use and call Smarty Jones great. Deep in my heart, I have absolutely no doubt that he is great. It has been decades since a racehorse made the hair on the back of my neck stand up the way Smarty Jones did Saturday. But why tempt fate? So much can go wrong between now and the Belmont. All of us have waited this long for a truly great horse to come along; we can wait just one more race. Then, Smarty Jones will get all the accolades he deserves.

In the meantime, let's at least call Smarty Jones's performance in the Preakness what it was, and it was great by every measure. Lion Heart, the horse who finished less than three lengths behind Smarty Jones in second in the Kentucky Derby, finished 13 3/4 lengths behind him at Pimlico. Imperialism, who finished six lengths behind Smarty Jones when third in the Derby, was beaten almost 14 lengths Saturday. Borrego, who got to within 1 1/2 lengths of Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby, was 15 1/2 lengths up the track. Respected new shooters Rock Hard Ten and Eddington were clobbered by 11 1/2 lengths and 13 1/2 lengths, respectively.

Smarty Jones's winning margin of 11 1/2 lengths was a record in a race that had been run 128 times before. His time of 1:55.59 over a Pimlico main track that was not the paved highway it usually is on Preakness Day was fast enough to earn an excellent Beyer Speed Figure of 118. Smarty Jones accomplished this not by sitting in the garden spot off a pace disputed by Lion Heart and Sir Shackleton, as many thought would be the case, but by pressing the early lead held by Lion Heart to keep him honest, which is a considerably tougher trip.

All of this was done on a fast track, proving that Smarty Jones does not need a wet track to succeed over graded stakes company, or for the excuses a wet track may or may not give his opposition. This was accomplished in the kind of steamy heat that would cause Funny Cide to stay in the barn. And this was not a hollow blowout over an empty field, as was the case last year with Funny Cide. This was making a solid group of horses look like they were mules.

And for some reason, this is not dissuading a good-sized group of horses from considering challenging Smarty Jones again in the Belmont. It's incredible that the connections of Rock Hard Ten and Eddington would want to come back for more after the beatings they took Saturday, but they do. The Cliff's Edge, Birdstone, Tapit, Master David, and Friends Lake were all beaten anywhere from 12 1/2 to almost 37 lengths by Smarty Jones in the Derby, but they all seem to want another drubbing. Royal Assault is Belmont-bound after winning the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard, but on Beyer Figures, he is going to have to improve no fewer than 20 lengths to match what Smarty Jones did on Saturday. Relaxed Gesture may be sent from Ireland for the Belmont. That's a long way to come to face the likes of Smarty Jones. Memo to Relaxed Gesture's connections: Consider jumping on a plane heading east, not west.

Yes, 28 horses before Smarty Jones went into the Belmont Stakes seeking a sweep of the Triple Crown, and 17 failed. But among those who failed since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner, Funny Cide had Empire Maker, Real Quiet had Victory Gallop, Silver Charm had Touch Gold, Sunday Silence had Easy Goer, and Alysheba had Bet Twice. Unlike these examples, there is no 3-year-old who has proven to be even in the same time zone with Smarty Jones, let alone a rival. And even Spectacular Bid, who was a truly great horse despite being unable to sweep the Triple Crown, had a safety pin and Ron Franklin as obstacles. Smarty Jones's trainer, John Servis, and his jockey, Stewart Elliott, have been as flawless as their colt.

Yes, the Belmont is at 1 1/2 miles, a distance that can undo many a horse. But Smarty Jones isn't many a horse. He has already broken the distance limitation suggested by his pedigree. He fits the successful Belmont Stakes profile of a horse with positional speed who has the ability to break the race open with a half-mile to go.

On June 5, Smarty Jones has a date with destiny. Considering that 112,668 people showed up to watch him in the Preakness, which obliterated the previous attendance record, and which proves just how this colt has connected with the public, you can expect about 125,000 to show up at the Belmont. That would crush the previous Belmont attendance record, and I wouldn't miss being one of them for the world.