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Smarty bandwagon swelling
BALTIMORE - Eight is not enough. Smarty Jones has now won eight straight races without a defeat, but his growing popularity has fans clamoring for more. After adding Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico to his victory two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby, Smarty Jones will now attempt to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, and first since Affirmed in 1978, in the 136th Belmont Stakes on June 5 at Belmont Park.
This year's Belmont has the makings of one of the greatest events in racing history. The popularity of the Belmont has soared in recent years, with crowds of more than 100,000 attending each of the past two years. The passionate interest in Smarty Jones - who lured a Pimlico record 112,668 on Saturday - figures to make this Belmont a record, too, eclipsing the crowd of 103,222 who turned out in 2002. There were 101,864 at the race last year, despite heavy, day-long rain.
Smarty Jones returned on Sunday to his base at Philadelphia Park, where he will train until leaving for Belmont Park. At least seven horses, and probably a couple more, are expected to challenge Smarty Jones in the Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles the longest of the Triple Crown races. Should Smarty Jones win the Belmont, he will earn a $5 million bonus from Visa, the Triple Crown's sponsor.
Smarty Jones will have an easy training schedule this week. He was not expected to return to the track for serious training until at least Wednesday, after his trainer, John Servis, returns from a brief vacation in the Pocono Mountains with his wife, Sherry.
Servis came out of the Preakness far worse than his thriving colt. The demands of the past two weeks caught up with Servis last weekend. He was fighting a chest cold on Sunday morning.
As miserable as he felt, Servis still was beaming over the performance of his colt. Smarty Jones won the Preakness by a record 11 1/2 lengths while earning the highest Beyer Speed Figure of his career, 118.
"When I saw him starting to draw off, I felt it. I must have been beaming from ear to ear," Servis said. "I had no idea he had won by that far. I thought it was three, four, or five. I had no idea it was 11."
Smarty Jones is the 10th horse to capture both the Derby and Preakness since Affirmed. This year marks the sixth time in the last eight years that a 3-year-old will enter the Belmont with a chance to capture the Triple Crown. The 26-year Triple Crown drought is the longest since Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner in 1919.
In addition to Sir Barton and Affirmed, the other nine Triple Crown winners are Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, and Seattle Slew. There has been no living Triple Crown winner since Seattle Slew died on May 7, 2002.
Neither Servis nor jockey Stewart Elliott had ever competed in a Triple Crown race before this year. Yet both have made the right move at every point. Going into the Preakness, Servis did not give Smarty Jones a workout. He believed fitness was less an issue in the two-week turnaround then keeping Smarty Jones mentally fresh.
"I was a little worried because it was hard to gauge where he really was," Servis said. "But he knew it was game day. He was ready. He was a happy horse. That's where we wanted him. It's hard to believe that you map out a game plan, and since January, it's gone like clockwork."
Elliott gave Smarty Jones another savvy ride on Saturday. Baited into going wide on the far turn by jockey Mike Smith aboard Lion Heart, Elliott ducked inside with Smarty Jones and was gone in a flash. Elliott also eased up on Smarty Jones in the final yards, when the race was obviously over.
"I asked Stew, 'Did you save a little for the next dance?' He said he couldn't have done it any easier," Servis said.
Servis had yet to decide on when he would send Smarty Jones to Belmont Park. He did not come to Pimlico until Wednesday, just three days before the race. If Servis works Smarty Jones before the Belmont - and he is expected to give him one workout, about a week before the race, as he did going into the Derby - one factor Servis will have to weigh is whether he wants that workout to be at Belmont Park.
Some of his likely rivals are already at Belmont Park. Rock Hard Ten, who finished second in the Preakness in only his fourth start, arrived there on Monday morning after a van ride from Pimlico. Eddington, the third-place finisher in the Preakness, is based at Belmont and returned there Sunday.
Jason Orman, who trains Rock Hard Ten, joked after the Preakness that if his colt had had another race, "we only would have lost by six."
"Hopefully we can move up six lengths, and Smarty can lose six lengths," Orman said Monday.
Rock Hard Ten may need a new rider if Gary Stevens, who is based in France, has a commitment in Europe that day; June 5 is also the date of the Epsom Derby. The Epsom Oaks and Coronation Cup are on June 4 in England, and the French Derby is June 6.
Mark Hennig, the trainer of Eddington, believes his colt has room for improvement, but greatly respects Smarty Jones.
"If he runs as well as he can he's probably going to win the Triple Crown," Hennig said. "I'd like to think our horse can improve a lot if he gets focused, but that's a lot of ground to make up."
No other Preakness runners are scheduled to return in the Belmont.
Royal Assault, who won the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard with an 88 Beyer Speed Figure, is headed to the Belmont for trainer Nick Zito, who has finished second in the Belmont five times, but has yet to win it. Zito also has Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge under consideration for the race, with The Cliff's Edge the more likely of the two. He, however, needs to recover quickly from a bruised right front foot that necessitated his being scratched from the Preakness.
Several Belmont runners could emerge from Saturday's Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park, which is expected to include Friends Lake, Master David, Sinister G, and Swingforthefences. Relaxed Gesture, based in Ireland with trainer Dermot Weld, is also possible for the Belmont. Relaxed Gesture finished eighth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Others under consideration for the Belmont are Wood Memorial winner Tapit, and Mustanfar, who was third in an allowance race against older horses last week at Belmont Park.
* Stewart Elliott, the rider of Smarty Jones, was fined $25 by Pimlico stewards because he "falsified his 2002 riding application," according to the executive director of the Maryland Racing Commission, J. Mike Hopkins. Elliott had failed to disclose that he had been arrested in 2001 and pleaded guilty to felony assault, Hopkins said.
Elliott was fined $1,000 by the Kentucky Racing Commission for the same omission after the jockey filed an application to ride in this year's Derby. Elliott has frequently ridden in Maryland, and his 2002 application was his most current on file, Hopkins said.
- additional reporting by David Grening and Matt Hegarty