05/18/2004 11:00PM

The view from here: Smarty is special

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BALTIMORE - The record crowd of 112,668 people at the Preakness watched Smarty Jones and Stewart Elliott from everywhere - clubhouse boxes, grandstand seats, infield beach chairs, tippy-toes on the apron.

And then there were the few who saw it from the front row. Jockeys Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux, and Mike Smith enjoyed the best seats in the house. Yes, enjoyed. That's how good Smarty Jones was on May 15. Rival jockeys, in the midst of getting hot and dirty, enjoyed the show.

For a horse to awe a rival jockey - that takes doing. Secretariat to Laffit Pincay on Sham, sure. Affirmed to Jorge Velasquez on Alydar, perhaps. Smarty Jones to two jockeys in the Hall of Fame and another one on the cusp - it was a gentle mix of respect, exasperation, and good old-fashioned entertainment.

Each jockey went into the Preakness with hope and strategy to beat Smarty Jones. Hope and strategy vanished faster than sobriety in the Pimlico infield. Unlike the Derby, there were no excuses - shoes were not lost, positions were not squandered in the run to the first turn, mud was not the culprit. Smarty Jones simply beat them.

In the first two Triple Crown races, Smith came the closest to beating Smarty Jones. Lion Heart made Smarty Jones work in the Derby, but the talented colt was nothing more than a pace car in the Preakness.

"Sometimes you can do things to a horse to make yourself a length better," Smith said after finishing fourth in the Preakness. "But he's in a league of his own. He might be another Secretariat. I ain't kidding you."

Stevens flew from France to ride Rock Hard Ten in the Preakness, thinking the inexperienced colt had the goods to upend Smarty Jones. Afterward, he was packing for a return trip to France - taking his ball and going home - with nothing but superlatives about Smarty Jones.

"My horse ran the way I expected, and I thought that might be good enough to beat Smarty Jones. Boy, was I wrong," Stevens said after finishing second. "I think I just witnessed a horse that's going to go down in history as one of the best we've ever seen."

Desormeaux hopped off Imperialism after the Derby and proclaimed that with a better trip, Smarty Jones would have been the bottom half of the exacta. After the Preakness, Desormeaux wasn't proclaiming anything other than Smarty Jones's virtues.

"He has no mental flaws," Desormeaux said after finishing fifth. "You watch Stewart go around there, the horse is absolutely attentive to the jockey's needs. Other horses pull, some get out, and a few are true blues. That's what he seems to be - an absolute racehorse."

And so it goes. Smarty Jones has transformed from local wunderkind to cultlike status - Secretariat country. Fans, fellow trainers, and rival jockeys have fallen under a spell.

The only thing that can break that spell is to beat him. That hasn't happened. He has won eight in a row, and the Belmont Stakes looms as the next domino in his march to the first Triple Crown in 26 years. If he wins, he will earn his second $5 million bonus and become the sport's career leading earner in just nine races.

Can he get beaten?

"You don't beat him, not unless he beats himself," Stevens said. "He won't get beat unless the wheels come off, and I hope they don't come off for a long time."

"He's got all weapons," Smith said. "He handles any track. You can grab a hold of him, take him back, put him on the lead. He can get knocked around. Nothing fazes him."

"So far he hasn't given a stride - that's what makes him a freak," Desormeaux said. "When he went, I tried to go with him, and he just left me. He's like the Lakers - the only thing that can beat him is himself."

Ah, the Lakers. All the talent in the world with all the ego in the world. Shaq can't shoot a free throw. Kobe can't stay out of court.

When the Lakers are beating up on the San Antonio Spurs, there isn't a Spur rooting for them or respecting them. No doubt Stevens, Smith, and Desormeaux want to beat Smarty Jones, but the horse has also made them fans.

"I got goose bumps at the eighth pole," Stevens said. "I thought, 'I have never seen this in my life.' It's going to be great for the sport. We needed this, and it's great people with the horse."

"Sometimes it looks like Stewart's riding him, but it's like he's just pedaling along next to you, like, 'Okay, I'm here.' Like it's no big deal," Smith said. "When we went around the turn, I look over and he's got both ears forward like he's out for a Sunday stroll."

"I got to see him in full color today," Desormeaux said. "He's like Secretariat. He runs because we put him in the starting gate and opened the doors. Now to do the next, it takes a total freak of nature. And he looks like he can do it."