For the third year in a row (and the sixth June in the last eight), people who barely know which end of a horse eats are rooting their lungs out for one of them -- Smarty Jones, this time -- to win today's Belmont Stakes and complete racing's Triple Crown. Why anyone, let alone everyone, should care about this, even turf experts are hard-pressed to explain. At the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, a turf expert is defined as "a baseball writer with borrowed binoculars."
On the eve of Secretariat's Belmont in 1973, the leader of the herd, Red Smith, asked Charlie Hatton of the Daily Racing Form, "How did he work this morning, Charlie?"
"The trees swayed," Hatton said.
In a way, Smith was getting it straight from the horse's mouth, because Hatton was the man who invented the American Triple Crown (a takeoff on Britain's Epson Derby, Two Thousand Guineas and St. Leger Stakes). In his dispatches, Charlie had grown weary of spelling out which three races Gallant Fox had won in 1930. Instead of the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, it just as easily could have been the Derby, the Belmont and the Travers. By the way, Gallant Fox was the only Triple Crown winner to sire a Triple Crown winner, the misbegotten Omaha, who failed so miserably at stud that he closed out his career fathering cavalry horses at a remount station in Douglaston, Wyo.
By 1973 searchers had almost despaired of finding another three-year-old colt, filly or gelding (the unkindest cut of all) who could win all three races over just a five-week span. Twenty-five years had blown by since Citation took Eddie Arcaro for a great ride. But then, in a flash, Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978) triumphed back-to-back, and Spectacular Bid might have made it three on the trot if he hadn't stepped on a safety pin the Saturday morning of the Belmont, literally finding a needle in a haystack.
In the quarter-century since then, the impossibility of the Triple Crown has been reestablished. But hopes aren't just high for Smarty Jones; they're percolating. The son of a miler, the maternal grandson of a sprinter, Smarty Jones certainly isn't bred for the classic Belmont distance of a mile-and-a-half, but he doesn't seem to know that. He is unbeaten in eight races.
Secretariat's real feat, of course, wasn't winning the Belmont by 31 lengths. It was knocking Watergate off the covers of the newsmagazines for just a moment. And Smarty Jones doesn't have to win in a walk to provide a similar service to mankind. He just has to win.
When Secretariat came into the home stretch alone, and he kept coming and coming, and he was still alone, Jack Nicklaus was also alone, in front of his TV at home. The golfer had no stake in the race or in racing. So, why was he on his knees in front of the set, pounding the carpet and crying? Later he put this question to turf expert Heywood Hale Broun, who thought he knew the answer.
"It's because you've been looking for perfection your whole life," Woody told Jack, "and you finally saw it."
The writer is a former Washington Post sports columnist whose latest book is a collection of memories titled "The Bases Were Loaded (And So Was I)."