On the Fast Track To History
By Andrew Beyer
Monday, May 17, 2004; Page D01
The skeptics are silenced. Knowledgeable fans are convinced. Rival trainers and jockeys are agog. All can jump on the Smarty Jones bandwagon now. His Preakness victory was one of the most convincing performances by a 3-year-old in years.
Smarty Jones's 111/2-length triumph sets him apart from other horses who have come this far and been in a position to complete a historic sweep of the Triple Crown. Yes, there was just as much hype for Funny Cide last year, and plenty for War Emblem in 2002 and Charismatic in 1999, and they turned out to be disappointments after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But none of them had the versatility, consistency and raw ability of the improbable star from Pennsylvania.
It was difficult to assess Smarty Jones after his triumph at Churchill Downs because his running time was unimpressive and the sloppy, speed-favoring track may have aided him. There were no such ambiguities at Pimlico, and people who can recognize an exceptional thoroughbred knew they had seen the real thing. Patrick Biancone, who has trained high-class horses on three continents, hailed Smarty Jones as "a great champion." Veteran jockey Gary Stevens said, "That's as good as any horse I've ever seen," and mentioned the Preakness winner in the same breath as Secretariat.
Runaway victories can sometimes be deceptive, but objective evidence verified the quality of Smarty Jones's performance. On the day before the Preakness, some of the best older horses in the country contested the Pimlico Special, and the high-class California invader Southern Image won it by running 13/16 miles in 1:55.89. The Pimlico racing surface, which has been slower lately than in previous years, was virtually identical the next day, when Smarty Jones sped the same distance in 1:55.59. It is extraordinary for a young 3-year-old to run faster than top-class older horses.
His effort earned him a tie for the second-best Beyer Speed Figure in a Triple Crown race since we began publishing these ratings in 1987. Easy Goer recorded a figure of 122 in the 1989 Belmont Stakes. Summer Squall and Silver Charm got ratings of 118 in the Preaknesses of 1990 and 1997, respectively. Smarty Jones's 118 puts him into some illustrious company.
The Preakness underscored the virtues that make Smarty Jones such a formidable competitor. He has the magical combination of speed and tractability that makes jockey Stewart Elliott say, "He's push-button." Smarty Jones broke from the gate at Pimlico with the alacrity of a sprinter, but when Lion Heart expectedly rushed to the lead, Elliott put his mount under just enough restraint to secure second place, stalking the leader -- just where he wanted to be.
As Lion Heart raced some three paths away from the rail, Elliott dropped to the inside approach at the final turn. When he challenged his move, he would have to be quick to secure his position, in case Lion Heart and Mike Smith tried to shut him off. Elliott pushed the button, Smarty Jones accelerated sharply inside the leader and took command of the Preakness.
In the stretch, he unleashed a finishing kick that belied his reputation as a speed horse. Even though Rock Hard Ten was making a respectable move to launch a challenge, Smarty Jones ran away and left him for dead. "I had another gear left," said Stevens, the rider of the runner-up, "but Smarty Jones had four more."
Horses with push-button speed are the most effective racehorses because they can adapt to almost any circumstances. The racehorse who epitomized this type was the great Affirmed, whose controllable speed regularly enabled him to beat his arch rival Alydar. In the coming weeks, the names of Affirmed and Smarty Jones will be mentioned together frequently, as Smarty seeks to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
Smarty Jones's superior talent does not ensure that he will complete the sweep at Belmont Park June 5. The 11/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes has foiled many great horses, and it could expose one potential vulnerability in Smarty Jones: his pedigree. He has overcome his sprint-oriented bloodlines so far, but he is not constituted to be an effective 11/2-mile runner.
His pedigree will be the subject of much discussion during the next three weeks, but for now the racing world should savor the emergence of a bona fide star who merits all the acclaim he is receiving.
Other recent bids for the Triple Crown have stirred mixed emotions among racing purists who knew that the likes of Funny Cide, War Emblem and Charismatic did not deserve to have their names on a list with the sport's immortals. But after the performance that Smarty Jones delivered to make his record 8 for 8, nobody could question that he would be worthy of a Triple Crown.
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