Updated on 09/17/2011 1:32PM

A superstar or another Funny Cide?


WASHINGTON - Thoroughbred racing has a bright new star in Smarty Jones. He is the first undefeated horse to win the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew, and his perfect record suggests that he possesses limitless potential. He also has the rags-to-riches appeal of Funny Cide, with a Pennsylvania-based owner, trainer, and jockey for whom the Derby once seemed an impossible dream.

Fans who watched Smarty Jones's 2 3/4-length triumph at Churchill Downs may wonder whether the colt is more like Seattle Slew or Funny Cide. Is he a brilliant Thoroughbred in the class of the 1977 Triple Crown winner? Or is he a flash-in-the-pan like last year's Derby hero? Funny Cide has proved himself to be a non-superstar after benefiting from favorable circumstances in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Those questions are unanswerable in the aftermath of the 130th Derby. The heavy rain that turned the Churchill Downs racing strip into a sea of slop spoiled the race as a definitive test of the 3-year-olds' talent.

Sloppy tracks almost always produce ambiguous results; it is impossible to judge whether horses ran well or poorly because of the footing or because of their own merits and demerits. The losers' trainers and jockeys invariably cite track conditions as an excuse. After Saturday's race, trainer Nick Zito said that the morning-line favorite, The Cliff's Edge, had lost both of his front shoes during the Derby and that his other entrant, Birdstone, had lost one. John Kimmel said that Friends Lake "really had a hard time with the footing." Michael Dickinson, trainer of Tapit, declared that the track was "a little sticky for us." Jockey Alex Solis said of Master David, "He started slipping and sliding." Jose Valdivia Jr. said of Castledale, "He hated the mud flying back in his face."

In many cases, such explanations are alibis for horses who would have run poorly under any conditions. Yet the way the Derby was run suggests that the race was not a true measure of many horses' ability.

Sloppy tracks frequently favor front-runners because the leaders kick up mud that inhibits the horses behind them. Speed horses dominated all three of the previous Derbies run on a track labeled "sloppy," in 1925, 1948, and 1994.

Bettors anticipated this scenario; after rain inundated the Churchill Downs strip about an hour before post time, a flood of late money poured onto Lion Heart, the expected front-runner, knocking his odds to 5-1 and making him second choice behind Smarty Jones. The pace scenario developed as almost everyone had anticipated. Jockey Mike Smith sent Lion Heart to the lead, with Stewart Elliott and Smarty Jones chasing him down the backstretch. The two colts were clear of the rest of the field on the final turn, and none of the stretch-runners in the field ever made an impact on the race.

While it is arguable that Smarty Jones and Lion Heart were the best horses, most of the evidence suggests that the track conditions prevented come-from-behind horses from giving their best efforts. Smarty Jones had won the Arkansas Derby by 1 1/2 lengths over the late-running Borrego; Saturday he beat the same rival by 15. Lion Heart had been caught by The Cliff's Edge in the stretch run of the Blue Grass Stakes; Saturday he beat that rival by nearly 10 lengths. The slow time of the Derby, 2:04.06 for 1 1/4 miles, translated into a Beyer Speed Figure of 107. That is exactly what Smarty Jones earned in Arkansas. Of the 17 horses behind him, not one reproduced his best form.

Nevertheless, it would be unfair to suggest that the outcome of the Derby was an utter fluke. Lion Heart set an honest pace, running the first half-mile in 46.73 seconds over the off going; he and Smarty Jones didn't "steal" the race by setting slow fractions, they outran their opposition.

And if Smarty Jones benefited from favorable circumstances, he did so partly because he made his own breaks. He has the most valuable trait a racehorse can possess: controllable speed. Although the colt has the quickness of a top-class sprinter, he can dole out that speed as Elliott wishes.

As the field raced to the first turn at Churchill Downs, Lion Heart had sprinted away to a clear lead; Smarty Jones found himself in the middle of five horses who were racing abreast of each other, chasing the leader. This was a precarious position, and Smarty Jones appeared to be in danger of getting squeezed back, but Elliott used just enough of his colt's speed to get into a clear striking position by the time he reached the turn. On the backstretch, he waited patiently until he pushed the button and asked Smarty Jones to make what would prove to be the winning move.

Such tractability makes Smarty Jones a formidable runner. But before his name can be mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Seattle Slew, he needs to duplicate his Derby performance on a fast track, where all his rivals have a fair chance to run their best races.

(c) 2004, The Washington Post