05/26/2004 11:00PM

The strangest bedfellows


NEW YORK - One of the great things about a juggernaut story such as Smarty Jones's impending bid for the Triple Crown is the way that it brings out the very best in our political and religious institutions.

On the secular front, the Philadelphia Daily News reports that the White House has asked for a photo opportunity between Smarty Jones and President George W. Bush. Team Smarty quite properly declined the invitation to van the colt to the Rose Garden.

"What would he do there?" assistant trainer Maureen Donnelly told the News. "We'll have to say no to President Bush, but he's welcome to come here if he wants."

Pennsylvania is a key battleground state in this year's Presidential election, and there is more political capital to be gained with Quaker Staters these days by embracing Smarty Jones than by kissing an Amish baby while eating a cheesesteak in front of the Liberty Bell.

Still, Pennsylvanians seeking loyalty through good times and bad may note that the President's offer was contingent upon a Triple Crown victory. If Smarty does not come marching home a winner next Saturday, he is equus non grata at the Bush White House. You might think an 8-for-9 record would be good enough for a Presidential audience, but apparently nobody loves a loser in our nation's capital.

You don't have to be a national politician to be looking to grab Smarty's tail and ride it to headlines. Your tax dollars are similarly hard at work on the local front. A skirmish of the sort usually reserved for sewage-treatment and zoning debates has broken out in Philadelphia's suburbs over a street sign.

A seemingly benign effort to rename a portion of Street Road near Philadelphia Park in Bensalem, Pa., as Smarty Jones Boulevard has met some not-so-fast opposition from a Bucks County legislator.

"I think we'd have to think about it," State Senator Robert Tomlinson told the Bucks County Courier Times. "There's an awful lot of business along Street Road."

"We want our recognition," Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo told the newspaper. "Philadelphia is starving for a winner. They can grasp at it, but they need to remember it's in Bensalem and not just Philly."

Even loftier institutions than the state legislature are showing some interest. Visitors to the website of the racing magazine The Blood-Horse may have been startled Thursday to see a head shot of Smarty Jones with an electric-blue halo surrounding his head like a winning throw at a carnival ring-toss game. The illustration was for a news bulletin that began this way: "If Smarty Jones wins the June 5 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) and the Visa Triple Crown Challenge, it may be because he has had a little extra help from the 'Man upstairs'." (Religious experts are invited to instruct copy editors whether the capitalization of "Man" in this context is in fact theologically appropriate.)

It seems that Father Thomas Homa, of the Our Lady of Fatima church across the street from Philly Park, visited Smarty Jones on Thursday morning and asked for divine intervention in the 10th race at Belmont Park next Saturday.

"I asked Him to give him the special gift of the Triple Crown," said Homa. "I was going to sprinkle holy water on him, but I forgot it."

This is probably just as well, if only so that the New York State Racing and Wagering Board does not have to consider whether the administration of holy water nine days before post time is merely therapeutic or intended to enhance performance.

Father Homa's ministrations raise all sorts of uncomfortable questions for horseplayers, be they acolytes or atheists. If you bet against Smarty Jones, are you summoning dark forces, asking the Man downstairs to negate Father Homa's blessing? If Smarty Jones loses, does that mean we live in a bleak and godless universe or does it merely suggest that the Man upstairs might have more important things to do than fix a horse race?

More of the same is sure to follow on Saturday's national telecast, judging from the past performances. NBC's Derby and Preakness telecasts included adorable stories about lucky religious medals and a group of nuns betting on Smarty Jones. (It seems likely that there were other groups of nuns who bet on every other horse in the Derby, but taking up a collection to bet on Quintons Gold Rush just doesn't have as happy an ending.) Both telecasts also managed to sneak in a lingering and gratuitous shot of an American flag in their opening montages, perhaps a subliminal effort to tug at patriotic urges or to promote NBC's upcoming marathon Olympics coverage.

Belmont Day itself will be full of similar institutional intrusions, with a different New York politician likely to be handing out a trophy after each of the stakes races on the card. If nothing else, it will be a wonderful opportunity for 125,000 citizens to voice their opinion of their elected officials.