06/06/2004 11:00PM

Smarty fuels record Belmont handle

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Until a superhorse comes along to erase Smarty Jones from our collective consciousness, people are going to be viewing this as the Triple Crown that got away.

Undefeated and previously unchallenged, Smarty Jones was sent off as the biggest Belmont favorite since Spectacular Bid lost in 1979. People are still talking about that one, and they'll talk about this one, too. So, where were you when Smarty Jones lost the Belmont?

I was at the Texas Station race book in North Las Vegas. But from talking to race book workers and bettors throughout town, the same scene played out no matter where you were. It was a communal viewing experience. Veteran horseplayers and casual fans alike jammed the race books, many wearing the souvenir T-shirts that they received with a wager on the race. They were joined by even more people as the anticipated 3:38 p.m. Pacific time post approached. They had another 10 minutes to wait, but used that time to watch the post parade and send up a roar every time Smarty Jones and his now-famous Someday Farms silks appeared on the dozens of TV screens. Most books even turned their sports TV's to the race in lieu of relatively meaningless early-June baseball games.

After an uneasy time of watching Rock Hard Ten reluctantly load into the gate, the buzz in the crowd rose to a crescendo as the field of nine broke from the gate. Another cheer went up when Smarty Jones went to the front down the backstretch.

Tom Durkin's call of the race was barely audible at most books, drowned out by fans yelling, "Go, Smarty, go." When Smarty Jones turned for home, a man next to me said, "He'll draw off by 20." I wish I had done my impression of ESPN's Lee Corso and said, "Not so fast, my friend" as Birdstone started to make his move.

Even then, Smarty's fans were screaming for their hero to withstand one final challenge, but Birdstone swept on by to win by a length as the race book went from a den with a din to a place where you could hear the drop of a pin.

As the books cleared out, the floors were strewn with tickets and a quick glance showed that 90 percent of them had Smarty Jones's No. 9 on them.

The Smartymania led to a record Belmont Day in handle as $2.29 million was wagered on the Belmont Stakes in the state of Nevada, representing a whopping 35.5 percent increase over last year's handle of $1.69 million in Funny Cide's failed attempt last year. That was with a six-horse field, so a better - and more impressive - comparison is the 16.2 percent increase over the $1.97 million bet two years ago in a field of 11 when War Emblem lost his bid.

Total statewide wagering for the day was $5.16 million, up about $600,000, or 13.2 percent, from last year's $4.56 million.

John Avello, director of race and sports for the Bally's and Paris hotels, is usually in a position where he stands to lose a lot of money if a horse sweeps the Triple Crown because of his future-book liability. Before this year's Kentucky Derby, he had Smarty Jones at 35-1 to win the Triple Crown. A lot of bets pounded the number down to 20-1. After the Derby, he adjusted Smarty to 7-2 to sweep the Preakness and Belmont, and then after the Preakness, his odds dropped to 2-5, or -250 on a money line. Early bettors, feeling that Smarty would go off at lower odds on Belmont Day, pounded him again up to -320 with +260 (better than 5-2) on the rest of the field. But then a funny thing happened.

"We got a ton of late money on the 'no,' Avello said. "I actually closed it at -200/+170. We would have done better overall if he had won and we had to pay the early, bigger tickets instead of all the late ones. So I was in a nice position to cheer for Smarty not only for the book but also for racing, but the mile and a half distance finally did him in."

The "no" was also the winning side in most other props around town. The Imperial Palace had "will any horse win by 3 lengths of more?" with the yes at -190 and the no at +150. The MGM Mirage books had "will Smarty Jones be beaten by four or more lengths?" with the yes at +400 and the no at -600. All props predicting Smarty's victory margin obviously all came back no, no, no, no, no.

Come to think of it, that's what a lot of people were yelling as Birdstone crossed the wire.

Hopkins picks up pieces for Philly

While seemingly everyone was watching Philadelphia's own Smarty Jones in the Belmont, just the 13,041 in attendance at the MGM Grand and a pay-per-view audience that same night watched Philly native Bernard Hopkins successfully defend his middleweight title belt for the 18th straight time (10 more than Smarty Jones's win streak).

"There's been a lot of fluff about the Eagles, the 76ers, [and now] Smarty Jones was everywhere," Hopkins said. "Everyone was going to say, 'We finally have a champion.' Open your eyes, Philadelphia. I've been here all the time. I'm the last of the Mohicans."

His literary reference aside, Hopkins was impressive on Saturday night, though his fight with Robert Allen was similar to Smarty's race. Just as when Smarty Jones appeared to put away his competition in the Belmont, Hopkins seemed to deliver the knockout punch by leveling Jones in the seventh round. But then just like Birdstone mounting his challenge, Allen stood his ground and won the eighth and ninth rounds on my scorecard. But unlike Smarty, Hopkins was able to finish the job as a heavy favorite (-700) and won a unanimous decision, with two judges scoring it 119-107 and the third having 117-109.

"I watched Smarty Jones in my suite," Hopkins said at the post-fight press conference, boxing's equivalent of the winner's circle. "I had a lot of pressure on me. I had to come through for Philly. I had to carry Philly tradition on my shoulders. If I had lost, the papers would have linked my loss with him. By me coming through, it made a little better news."

In the co-featured bout, Oscar De La Hoya, an even heavier favorite at -800, barely defeated Felix Sturm 115-113 on all three judges' cards to take Sturm's WBO middleweight belt and set up a unification bout vs. Hopkins on Sept. 18 at the MGM Grand.

Prior to Saturday night, the odds on Hopkins were around -170 or -180 at area sports books. Expect that number to rise to -250 after their performances Saturday.