Thursday, September 25, 2014

Belmont Day: Smarty Jones & Racing History, Part IV

Smarty Jones had delivered in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The Smarty Party was in full force and there was just one race to go. The weight of history and the Triple Crown lay before Smarty Jones if he could just hold on—and hold off—any late charges.

The 1 ½ miles of the Belmont Stakes was all that stood between Smarty Jones and immortality. It promised to be the toughest challenge of his career. If he could just hold onto his winning form for one more race…

For months, all the Chapmans heard was that Smarty didn’t have the pedigree, that he’d run into a wall sooner or later. Yet here they were—a win away from being the racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner.

Deep down, Roy thought that someday, somewhere, he’s going to get beat. He only had to wait three more weeks now to wait.

Prior to the Belmont Stakes, John Servis was at a Philadelphia Phillies game. He was asked what his concern about the race was. Was it the 1 ½ miles? “I said ‘We’re the horse with the bull’s eye on our back.’ Everybody is worried about my horse.

The way the race set up, it’s human nature to worry about these things. Everybody usually tries to find a way to win the race. In the Belmont, if there’s a Triple Crown horse in there, every horse in the race thinks, ‘How do I beat the horse, not win the race?’”

Jerry Bailey, the jockey of Eddington, to this day receives much of the blame for why Smarty Jones lost that day, Smarty’s one and only loss in the ninth and final race of his career.

Eddington didn’t win, which makes it all the more frustrating for those who still blame Bailey, who’s tired of the criticism. All these years later he still deals with it when the Belmont Stakes rolls around. No matter what he says people won’t believe him. He maintains that he didn’t ride his horse to beat Smarty Jones, only to win the race.

“It’s 10 years later and I still get so much bullshit about it,” Bailey said in a phone interview. For instance, it irritated him that ESPN reporter Jeannine Edwards has never let it go. Bailey maintains he moved early down the backside because it was the only way to beat this horse, otherwise they’d never get to him. Bailey even gave Eddington a tap with the whip down the backside to ensure that Eddington kept up.

In his book, Against the Odds, Bailey wrote: "In the Belmont, some say my own assertive early handling of my horse Eddington was meant to act as a spoiler, to wear Smarty Jones down, but anyone who thinks I was intent on spoiling the Smarty Part is way off-base. I ride to win, never to beat another horse, and that is exactly what I did with Eddington.

Trainer Mark Hennig and I had worked on Eddington’s focus through the spring because the horse had continually failed to put it all together. Mark put a very sharp work into him before the Belmont because our plan was to have him on the engine right away. We wanted him to know he was in a race the minute he left the gate. We hoped and believed that would keep him from becoming distracted the way he had before.

We had told anybody who would listen that we would put him in the game from the beginning and that is exactly what we did. If the jockey was paying any attention, he knew early pressure was going to come from him. Rock Hard Ten joined the fray as well.
There are no gifts in racing. Everything must be earned, especially Triple Crowns. In the end, Edgar Prado rallied Birdstone to a one-length victory over Smarty Jones in the final leg.

[Prado] even apologized, because he genuinely felt awful about depriving the sport of a much-needed superstar. But he was only doing his job. So was I."

Bailey said Eddington had limitless potential, but the light bulb hadn’t gone on yet, which was a shame because Eddington was a huge horse; tall, well built, an Adonis.

Eddington was a non-factor in the Preakness. He was too green. He never focused down the lane. So Bailey figured that in order to give the horse a chance, he needed to put an eyeball in Smarty’s sight line. Bailey said Hennig told him to get him in the race early.

“If you can get him to eyeball Smarty, get Eddington in gear and into his rhythm. Eyeball him.” In other words, try and break him.

Smarty broke from the far outside in the nine-horse Belmont field. He shot out like a cannonball and cleared the field. Alex Solis on Rock Hard Ten also had his sights on getting to the lead. Eddington did not break well; he steadied and it took him a hundred yards to get his bearings.

By the time the horses reached the clubhouse turn, Purge had the lead with Rock Hard Ten on his right hip. Smarty tracked them in third. Eddington was a length in back of Smarty before falling back another two.
Elliott didn’t like how Smarty felt. For the first time in all their previous races, something was off.

Smarty was too keyed up, and this race was a full quarter-mile longer than the Derby. There were 120,139 people whose collective energy stewed the air. Elliott needed to ration Smarty’s energy, but how? He didn’t want to discourage Smarty by holding him back? He wasn’t sure what to do at that point.

As the horses straightened out down the backstretch, Eddington quickly moved up to the outside of Smarty, as was the plan. Now Smarty had pressure from Purge and Rock Hard Ten on the left, and Eddington on the right.

Bailey rushed at him but backed off when he knew that Eddington had no chance. Yes, he got their eyeballs locked, but Eddington was the first to blink.

Some viewed this as a suicidal tactic, contrary to what Bailey said. Servis couldn’t believe what he was seeing but he could sense what was happening, he saw the writing on the wall. He got concerned when he saw
Bailey take Eddington back, then rush back at him again. Why give up ground then surge back in? “Damn, here we go,” he said.

At this juncture Elliott had a decision to make. It would be a decision he’d have to live with for the rest of his life. Tom Durkin, Belmont’s race caller, later said, “[Smarty Jones] was a victim of pilot error.”
Elliott only had a few seconds to make up his mind; nanoseconds.

Through his hands he felt Smarty’s aggressiveness, how unsettled he had become. Elliott felt the other horses gunning for him. He had ridden long enough to know by the first turn when things are good and when things are bad. This was bad.

No matter what he tried, Elliott thought that Smarty was running in a 100-yard-dash. He kept fighting him. He tried to get him to relax. Nothing worked.

In this case, it was the thousand-pound animal that won the battle of wills. Elliott lengthened the reins and Smarty tightened the slack and leaned into the bit. The crowd roared when Smarty took the lead away from Purge and Rock Hard Ten.

There was still an entire mile to run. By then Bailey hustled Eddington up into contention. He shook him vigorously and with every pump he kept Smarty keyed up. Rock Hard Ten rode up for a final push. He lasted fifty yards. He couldn’t hang with Smarty, nobody could.

As they ran around the far turn, you could see dozens of buses lining the roads beyond the track. Buses once full of people waiting for this moment, ferried from all corners of the Northeast. The United States was mired in two wars a world away.

The Red Sox hadn’t yet won the World Series. Ronald Reagan died on this day, and there ran Smarty Jones, quaking the earth. At last, Smarty Jones found himself alone on the lead.

He turned for home and over 120,000 people roared. All that lay before him was a channel of perfectly harrowed sand and loam, his hooves the first to dimple the manicured surface. The only horses ahead of him were the specters of the 11 horses that swept this series.

Smarty’s stride began to shorten, weakened by too many recent miles. Elliott peeked behind him and saw Edgar Prado, a long-time friend and colleague, aboard the equally small colt in Birdstone—moving up fast.

Servis knew that the middle half-mile of this race had taken its toll. He no longer felt confident. In fact, he couldn’t believe Smarty held on this long. “We’re life and death to hold on,” he said. He looked behind Smarty and saw Birdstone, the only colt who may have been smaller than Smarty Jones.

Tom Durkin’s voice strained with every stride.

“Birdstone is going to make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It’s been twenty-six years! It’s just one furlong away! Birdstone is an unsung threat! They’re coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on?! Here comes Birdstone! Birdstone surges past! Birdstone wins … the Belmont Stakes.”

The place became funeral quiet. Pat Chapman couldn’t believe how eerie the quiet was. She swore she could have heard a pin drop. This is the loudest silence she could recall. All those people, 120,000 of them, stunned quiet. She’d never forget the silence.

The winning connections: Edgar Prado, trainer Nick Zito and owner Marylou Whitney and John Hendrickson, apologized. Winners; apologizing.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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BallHype: hype it up!

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