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Smarty turns up fear factor
BENSALEM, Pa. - As much as officials from the New York Racing Association want Smarty Jones to be an early arrival for the June 5 Belmont Stakes, perhaps they should be happy he will not be coming to town until after entries are drawn June 2.
For if the rival trainers got an up close and personal view of Smarty Jones in the morning, there may not be anybody willing to run against him in the $1 million Belmont. As it stands, there will likely be six or seven rivals trying to deny Smarty Jones his Triple Crown bid in the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion."
Rock Hard Ten, Eddington, Tapit, and Royal Assault are considered definite challengers. Tap Dancer, another Philadelphia Park-based horse, is likely, as is Birdstone. The Cliff's Edge is possible. Purge, the Peter Pan Stakes winner, is unlikely unless the field shrinks.
Purge's 6 3/4-length victory in Saturday's Peter Pan Stakes - in which he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 108 - was further validation for Smarty Jones, who twice handled Purge in Arkansas. Smarty Jones's powerful 1 3/4-mile gallop Monday morning at Philadelphia Park was further evidence that the first two legs of the Triple Crown have taken little out of him and that the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont Stakes should be well within his scope.
In an effort to "take a little of the edge off" of Smarty Jones, trainer John Servis has extended his morning gallops beyond the usual 1 1/2 miles. On a humid Monday morning that began with a bolt of lightning, a crackle of thunder, and the biggest, brightest orange sun imaginable, Smarty Jones had a frighteningly strong gallop over Philadelphia Park's main track.
Exercise rider Pete Van Trump was standing straight up in the irons with a firm hold of the reins for the last mile of the gallop.
"I haven't been able to get to the bottom of this horse, so I don't know how far he'll go," Servis said Monday morning.
Servis planned on galloping Smarty Jones two miles Tuesday before cutting back to 1 1/2-mile gallops Wednesday and Thursday. Servis plans to work Smarty Jones seven furlongs here Friday - with Elliott up - and is scheduled to ship him to Belmont Park after training hours next Wednesday.
"I'm probably going to work him a slow seven furlongs - for him," Servis said. "I don't want him too sharp. I don't want him going out there and working in 58 and trying to run off the first part of the race. Right now, the big thing with him is trying to take a little of the edge off and keep him happy."
Thus far, Servis said, "I'm seeing what I like."
Following Smarty Jones's victory in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, Servis shipped him to Keeneland, where he says he felt the quiet atmosphere would do him good. But, Servis said Smarty Jones had trouble with the surface, which prompted him to ship Smarty Jones to Churchill Downs 10 days out from the Kentucky Derby.
"We went there for the relaxing atmosphere, which he loved, but I didn't like the way he was coming back out of his gallops," Servis said. "He was having a little filling here, a little filling there; nothing major but just stuff he didn't have before. That's why I wanted to get him off of Keeneland. He went to Churchill and did great. I don't see that happening in New York, but the one thing I didn't want was to go up there early and have that happen. Then what do I do? Put him on a van and bring him back to Philadelphia? He's doing so good here I'm just staying here till Wednesday and then going up."
Unlike the Derby and Preakness, where Smarty Jones got to follow Lion Heart for the early stages of the race, Smarty Jones could find himself as the main speed of the Belmont. That suits jockey Stewart Elliott just fine.
"He's really learned to relax and be very controllable, so it's not bothering me at all,"
Elliott said. "I don't think it'll be a problem whatsoever."
Zito trio progressing well
Nick Zito got a chance to see The Cliff's Edge this weekend and said he liked what he saw. Zito said The Cliff's Edge, who missed the Preakness Stakes because of a bruised right front foot after finishing fifth in the Kentucky Derby, was making progress and could still run in the Belmont.
"He looks pretty good," Zito said from Saratoga, where The Cliff's Edge and stablemate Birdstone are training. "If he trains good all week and I can get a breeze into him this weekend, he'll go. If he can't, we're on hold. It's possible. We're not done yet."
Zito said The Cliff's Edge and Birdstone had easy training days Monday because of heavy rain at Saratoga. "It's raining like crazy here," he said. "Last night, we had violent thunderstorms."
The Belmont status of Birdstone, who was eighth in the Derby, also will be predicated on how he trains this week. "Little Man," said Zito, using his nickname for Birdstone, "looks good. If he can make it, he'll go. If he can't, we'll wait. He just had his actual third birthday last week. If he has another good week and looks the same way, I think we'll be okay."
Zito's most certain Belmont starter, Sir Barton Stakes winner Royal Assault, worked six furlongs in 1:16.09 at Belmont Park on Monday morning. Zito said Royal Assault would work once more prior to the Belmont.
Valenzuela may appeal to ride
Patrick Valenzuela may seek an injunction in order to ride Rock Hard Ten in the Belmont, his attorney, Don Calabria, said Monday.
The California Horse Racing Board last week suspended Valenzuela for all of June, but Calabria said he had yet to receive the formal ruling from the racing board. "I don't have the notice of something I can appeal," he said. "I would think I would get it in the next day or two."
Calabria said, "I don't want to appeal, to be honest, but Patrick is the client."
Eddington sharp in work
Eddington worked a bullet half-mile over Belmont's main track Monday. With former jockey Angel Cordero Jr. in the saddle, Eddington covered the distance in 46.47 seconds and galloped out five furlongs in 59.60 over a track labeled fast. It was the fastest of 35 works at the distance.
Mark Hennig, Eddington's trainer, said although the work was a bit quicker than he had planned, he was looking for a swift move.
"I told Angel something like 47 and change, because I wanted him to work along a bit and give him a wake-up notice," Hennig said. "Angel said the horse didn't even take a deep breath."
Hennig said one of the reasons he wanted a sharp work was to open up Eddington's lungs.
"He scoped with a little mucus after [the Preakness]," Hennig said. "We're going to scope him [Monday] and if he went too easy, it's sometimes hard to get a good reading."
Hennig said Eddington would have an "easy" work either Sunday or Monday before the Belmont.
Tap Dancer could get shot at Belmont
Trainer Ned Allard said he and owner Gil Campbell are strongly considering running Tap Dancer in the Belmont. Tap Dancer finished fourth, beaten three lengths in the Sir Barton on Preakness Day.
"I'm not going on record to say I'm a better horse than [Smarty Jones] is," said Allard, who thinks the 12 furlongs will aid Tap Dancer's cause. "When the races are over that's when he's getting in gear. He seems like he wants to run all day. It's a spot we think we might take a shot in."
Allard said Javier Castellano would ride Tap Dancer.
Purge looks unlikely for Belmont
Two days after winning Saturday's Grade 2 Peter Pan with Purge, trainer Todd Pletcher said there was only a 10 percent chance that Purge would run in the Belmont.
When asked if there was any possible scenario that would lead him to run Purge in the Belmont, Pletcher quipped, "If there is a walkover, I would run."
A more likely scenario for Purge, who became a stakes winner in the Peter Pan, is the top 3-year-old races run in New York during the summer: the $150,000 Dwyer at Belmont on July 11, the $500,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Aug. 8, and the $1 million Travers at Saratoga on Aug. 28.
"He's a nice horse and we always thought he would do well," Pletcher said. "We just guessed wrong when we went to Arkansas and chased Smarty Jones."
Orman works with Rock Hard Ten at gate
Rock Hard Ten, the Preakness runner-up, galloped and had a gate schooling session Monday at Belmont. Rock Hard Ten's trainer, Jason Orman, who arrived in New York on Saturday night after winning the Grade 3 Will Rogers at Hollywood Park with Laura's Lucky Boy, said Rock Hard Ten would work Tuesday.
Bleacher seats to be added
In anticipation of a record-breaking crowd on Belmont Stakes Day, the New York Racing Association is adding bleacher seats at the top of the stretch for the cost of $15. There also will be reserved seating on the apron of the grandstand for $18. The bleacher and the covered apron seats go on sale by phone - (516) 488-6000 ext. 4732 - on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and can be purchased with a VISA credit card only. On Wednesday, those seats can be purchased only with cash at the track starting at 11 a.m.
- additional reporting by Karen M. Johnson and Jay Privman