06/01/2004 11:00PM

A road trip fit for a rock star


ELMONT, N.Y. - In order to run in the Belmont Stakes, and thus take their places in history as winners of the Triple Crown, such heroes as Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew were required merely to go out and play hard in their own backyard. They already lived here, at Belmont Park, and by Wednesday of Belmont week their earlier business trips to Louisville and Baltimore had become distant memories. They were home, surrounded by familiar smells, sleeping in their own beds.

Smarty Jones, on the other hand, has become the ultimate road warrior. He keeps a bag packed and the tank full, with toll change handy and bottled water in the back. If the Teamsters ever want a mascot, Smarty's their guy.

On Wednesday he was at it again. The drive from Philadelphia Park to Belmont Park took 2 1/4 hours and covered about 90 miles, although it wasn't quite as simple as that.

This time, Ronnie Bradford's spiffy Cedarlane Farm van carrying Smarty Jones emerged from the Philadelphia Park stables at 9:35 a.m., preceded by three motorcycle police (Bensalem variety) with lights flashing and sirens ablare.

A couple of unmarked police vehicles fell in behind, followed by a small but dedicated trail of media and a handful of groupies on wheels. Overhead, TV news choppers whined like very large, impatient cicadas, as the motorcade made its way past a line of honking, waving fans, all of them waiting patiently to use the road when Smarty was finished with it.

Past Hooters, past The Pantry, past a Holiday Inn, the impromptu parade reached the part of the Pennsylvania Turnpike that runs behind the Philadelphia Park backstretch. In the distance, a banner hung: "Look Out NY, Here Comes Smarty." Enough said.

Unlike California and its Western neighbors, East Coast states are all about the size of a generous Wal-Mart parking lot. After leaving Bensalem, it was therefore necessary for Smarty and Co. to pass through at least three different enforcement jurisdictions, although I looked down once to switch the radio from NPR to ESPN, so there might have been a fourth.

After blocking off two key ramps and negotiating a toll plaza - "Break a leg, Smarty!" yelled a theater-going tolltaker - the Pennsylvanians turned the show over to New Jersey State Police. The ride continued unfazed, with Smarty Jones passing the next hour cruising at around 58 m.p.h and counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. Then EastRutherford loomed, and traffic began to clog the vast, chemical splendor surrounding the Meadowlands.

There are, amazingly, no less than four distinct choices for Exit 14, and you'd better be sharp or you will end up committing your route to the depths of the Lincoln Tunnel, rather than the more stately George Washington Bridge. In the distance, the skyline of Manahattan brought Woody Stephens to mind, and his favorite warning to invaders, something about the buildings getting taller once the Hudson was crossed. But what would he know about winning a Belmont? Or five.

"In my 64 years on this earth, I have never seen anything like this," said Bill Foster, the John Servis barn foreman, who was in his usual spot riding shotgun in the van. "This is an unbelievable experience."

At that point, the horse van in which Smarty Jones was riding was being escorted by one NYPD squad car, two New York State Police vehicles, and another from the Port Authority. A fifth official car - is there an MTA? - joined briefly and then peeled away.

"It's like traveling with the President," Foster said.

A word here might be appropriate about following a horse van into New York City. Once over the bridge and into the Bronx, traffic began to rise like an evil tide and the honking horns returned, although something tells me they weren't for Smarty Jones. New York drivers abhor a vacuum, so tailgate your motorcade buddy like the paint on his rear bumper. And if you want to keep the target in sight, get ready to blow off at least one toll stop with a tale of woe and be prepared to commit any number of minor, though enforceable, moving violations.

Soon, though, the procession reached the Throgs Neck Bridge - hey, there's Fort Schuyler! - and spilled onto the relative serenity of the southbound Clearview Expressway, which came to an abrupt end in Queens Village. That meant Smarty got to cruise past Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School, as well as the shops and dwelling along Hillside and Springfield. We camp followers resisted the temptation to shout, "Do you know who this is?" since it takes a lot more than a police-escorted horse van to raise a New York eyebrow. A few minutes later he was at the Belmont stable gate.

The last time Smarty Jones vanned to the city was in January for the Count Fleet at Aqueduct. Seems like an age ago, but for the horse, it felt the same. As Smarty's van drove into the Belmont stables, a left turn was required at Secretariat Ave. before he could arrive at Barn 5, where Secretariat himself was stabled in the spring of 1973. It has been said that the thrill is not in reaching the destination, but in taking the journey. Maybe Smarty Jones is a horse for both.