05/03/2004 12:00AM

Slop or no slop, Smarty Jones was best horse


NEW YORK - Who is to say precisely what effect the big rainstorm that rocked Churchill Downs before Saturday's Kentucky Derby had on the outcome of the race?

Who is to say that the condition of the main track for the Derby, which was sloppy after improving to fast earlier in the afternoon, moved up Imperialism and Limehouse, who outran their odds finishing third and fourth, or hurt Tapit and Master David, who finished a disappointing ninth and 12th?

Who is to say that the condition of the track helped Lion Heart carry his speed to a second-place finish, or muted the stretch kick of The Cliff's Edge, who finished a nonthreatening fifth?

And who is to say that the slop had anything to do with Smarty Jones's emphatic Kentucky Derby victory?

No one. That's who.

Each of the 18 who started in this year's Derby competed under the same conditions. No horse got a head start, and while there was some traffic during the running, as one would expect in a field of this size, no horse encountered enough trouble to cost him a meaningfully better finishing position.

Besides, to say that the slop had anything to do with the outcome would be terribly unfair to Smarty Jones. Roy Chapman, the 77-year-old owner of Smarty Jones, is right. His colt has never gotten the respect he deserves. The public likes Smarty Jones just fine, as evidenced by the fact that he was sent off the favorite. But Smarty Jones has also had a fair share of skeptics, myself included, who, if not questioning this colt's distance ability, were questioning his class, even as Smarty Jones continued to extend his undefeated streak to seven.

After Smarty Jones proved tons the best in the Derby, one would hope that the skepticism would all but disappear, but you never know. Smarty Jones became the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in 1977, and there may be another parallel between the two. Despite sweeping the Triple Crown, the greatness of Seattle Slew wasn't fully appreciated until he turned 4. Even skeptics were convinced when he turned in one of the greatest performances in defeat in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Much has been made of the ride by Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones, and it was flawless. If you didn't know, you could never tell that this was Elliott's first ride in the Derby. You also couldn't tell by watching Elliott coolly perform that he and Smarty Jones had brought off the biggest payday in the history of Thoroughbred racing: $5,854,800, $5 million of which came from an Oaklawn Park bonus.

But this shouldn't overshadow the tremendous job by Smarty Jones's trainer, John Servis. Servis managed to keep Smarty Jones razor-sharp for months while getting him to stretch out well beyond the boundaries of his pedigree. Moreover, Servis comes across as a likable practitioner of his craft. He certainly seemed immune to the Derby pressure cooker, which belied his Derby rookie status.

Servis made a Derby decision with Smarty Jones that was more gutsy than people might realize. He decided to take advantage of the lenient Kentucky medication rules and administered Lasix to Smarty Jones for the first time. Tinkering with perfection is not usually a good policy, especially considering first-time Lasix can backfire. There are times when first-time Lasix can have a dulling effect, which is why there is a popular handicapping angle called second-time Lasix. Lion Heart had the same opportunity, and his people elected to pass on Lasix. This surely didn't spell the 2 3/4-length difference at the finish, but Lasix certainly didn't hurt Smarty Jones.

Otherwise, the 130th Kentucky Derby resisted all the challenges to the long-standing guidelines for success in the first leg of the Triple Crown. For example, one-third of the field attempted to win off only two prep races, which has worked only twice since 1947. One of them, Lion Heart, ran very well under Mike Smith, who two races earlier had indefensibly hit Azeri 22 times with the whip left-handed from upper stretch to near the wire. Then again, Lion Heart just oozes quality, so a representative effort from him was no surprise. The other five attempting to win off two preps finished seventh or worse. The two who attempted to be first in 48 years to win without an April prep finished a distant seventh and 15th. The four who attempted to win without having previously earned a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure finished sixth or worse.

The one with the dubious distinction of being a triple qualifier here is Friends Lake, who had only two preps this year, hadn't raced since his painfully slow Florida Derby win on March 13, and had yet to earn a triple-digit Beyer Figure. He finished 15th, beaten just under 37 lengths. And it couldn't have been the track, because if it was, then Friends Lake is the first son of A.P. Indy in history who doesn't like slop.

But at least he's fresh.