Common Horse, Uncommon Sense
By William Gildea
Saturday, May 15, 2004; Page D11
Joe H. Palmer, the distinguished horse racing writer from back in the sport's heyday, loved nothing better than a good story about a "very glorious triumph" by an unlikely horse. He was drawn to the Seabiscuits and the Stymies. Palmer also would happily settle for any yarn that touted the intelligence of horses, concluding in one instance that the since-forgotten Sands of Pleasure possessed "about the same judgment as a losing horse player."
Palmer would have fallen for Smarty Jones, which is not to say that's where he would have put his money. But for writing purposes, Smarty is one good story. Not only does he come from the wrong side of the Kentucky horse-farm fences, from Philadelphia, of all places, he is, well, smart. After two days of communing with him at the Pimlico stakes barn, as plush a residence as it gets for horses, with stalls of high hay and the predominant sound of birds chirping, I would testify that Palmer was right in never underestimating horse sense. Smarty Jones is fast on his feet in more ways than one.
On his shed-row walks, he will pause to pose for pictures, standing almost motionless as he eyes the cameras with head held high, before moving on with a nod of satisfaction. Of course it can be argued: Do such smarts suggest that Smarty holds an advantage over his challengers when he pursues the Triple Crown's second garland in Saturday's Preakness? "If you'd have asked me back in January -- he'd been knocking people out of the way -- I mean, he's matured so much, I couldn't be happier," said Smarty's trainer, John Servis, surely a new envy of parents with 3-year-olds.
"If anything, I like his attitude better now than going into the Derby," Servis said. "He's just getting more and more comfortable with all the attention, and he's handling everything really, really, really well."
His jockey has found him similarly accommodating.
When asked during his seven outings -- all victories -- for either speed or restraint, or precise direction, Smarty complies with what the trainer described as "push-button" efficiency. "That's the sign of a great horse," Servis said.
He didn't say that Smarty was "great," but he did suggest the horse might be headed toward even greater distinction. It was praise enough to heighten the appeal of a horse that knocked himself unconscious and fractured his skull while trying as a 2-year-old to learn the intricacies of the starting gate.
Preakness favorite or not, Smarty still is identifiable as an underdog. "He doesn't have that royal blood in him," Servis said. "He's not a big horse. I'm standing there this morning watching him, and Rock Hard Ten and Eddington walk by me, and I was just, I mean, they're massive. They're two big, massive horses. So when you see him out there with those horses, you look at him and say, gee, the little guy's out there and he's trying to compete."
The favorite in any athletic competition rarely evokes sympathy, but Servis manages to do just that in speaking for his horse. He has never used the word "vulnerable" in connection with Smarty until recent days, when he said that Smarty is "very vulnerable" because he is racing for the first time with only two weeks rest. For that reason, Servis has abstained from ordering a hard workout, believing that the Derby constituted almost all the preparation Smarty could withstand for the Preakness.
In contrast, the French trainer Patrick Biancone has not rested Lion Heart. "Rested is not the word" for his horse, the dapper Biancone said, "because athletes work every day." He seemed interested in trying to eke out a bit more staying power from a front-runner prone to giving up the lead and finishing second, as in the Derby and his two previous outings. The Preakness being the shortest of the Triple Crown races, Biancone had the wily glance of an interloper trying to steal away with a race while everyone else looked the other way for a late-charger to win.
Imperialism likes to come from off the pace. Third in the Derby after a troubled trip around the track, he was flown home to California before it was belatedly decided to fly him here for the Preakness. The change of plans occurred after the trainer Kristin Mulhall -- as Joe H. Palmer would have been pleased to report -- consulted, in a manner of speaking, with her horse. "I said, 'Well, let's just let the horse tell us. If he's feeling good, we'll go back.' And he was feeling really good, and we're back."
Mulhall would like to see Imperialism "five or six lengths off the lead, preferably on the outside because he runs his hardest on the outside, and just make one big run. For him, once he starts running it really doesn't matter how wide he ends up going, because he just has so much momentum."
With Lion Heart up front and Sir Shackleton adding uncertainty early on and the likes of Imperialism, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington in pursuit, Smarty Jones will find himself in what Servis called "the toughest race he's ever been in." If he wins it and comes out of it healthy, Servis believes this: Smarty Jones will become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, that he will have an easier time winning the Belmont than the Preakness.
"I think there's a very good possibility, yes," he said. "I mean, this is a race, this is a big race for him. If we can get through this, then we're going to have a good chance at it."
Just a few feet away, Smarty Jones was eating heartily from a feed bag and apparently feeling at home in the same stall, No. 40, once occupied by Affirmed and other Triple Crown winners. He had thoroughly enjoyed his bath -- a sudsy one, topped off by a delightful spray of water -- and settled in for an afternoon of repose. If he remained silent as to what was on his mind, it was understandable. It was the wrong time of day to inquire.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company