With morning gallops complete, trainer Nick Zito took a seat in the shade at the Pimlico stakes barn with his old pal, longtime Maryland horseman Leon "The Blues Man" Blusiewicz, and tried to answer the question at hand: How in the world do you beat Smarty Jones?
"Seven for seven. I mean, come on," Zito said with a laugh and a shrug. "You can't argue with that."
The Kentucky Derby winner's record doesn't leave much room for criticism, let alone hope. With a style reminiscent of two-time horse of the year Cigar, Smarty Jones sets up shop outside and just off the right flank of the leader, accelerates on command and runs to victory. No matter his post position or the track condition, the outcome has always been the same -- seven races, seven wins.
Nine other horses are expected to show up in the Pimlico starting gate Saturday for the 129th Preakness Stakes at 6:04 p.m., on orders from their handlers to keep Smarty Jones from making it eight for eight.
Zito, who has run 12 horses in the Preakness since 1991, appears to have as good a shot as any with his double-barreled entry of The Cliff's Edge and Sir Shackleton, a newcomer to the Triple Crown series who won the one-mile Derby Trial at Churchill Downs the Saturday before the Kentucky Derby.
The two horses will run uncoupled in the wagering, and Zito insists the speedy Sir Shackleton isn't in the race solely to help soften up front-running Lion Heart and Smarty Jones for the late kick of The Cliff's Edge, who finished fifth in the Derby after losing two of his shoes.
"Both horses are owned by two different entities," Zito said. "The job of a trainer is like a coach -- put the best players on the field. We've never used a sacrificial entry . . . unless it's for the same owner."
Whether Sir Shackleton is running merely to set a fast pace is a little like chicken soup -- it couldn't hurt. The sloppy track at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby day clearly appeared to benefit front-runners. Quality speed horses -- such as War Emblem in 2002 and Zito's own Louis Quatorze in 1996 -- have won the 13/16 -mile Preakness. Often, however, front-runners that are just a touch light on class -- like Zito's Star Standard in 1995 -- compromise other fast runners and set things up for the closers.
There is precedent for Derby Trial winners running well in the Preakness: Canadian colt Alydeed finished second to Pine Bluff in 1992, Zito pointed out. Cherokee Run was second the next year to Prairie Bayou.
"I've got a better one," said Blusiewicz, a long-time Maryland trainer and bloodstock consultant. "Ack Ack."
Never mind that the 1971 horse of the year never ran in the Preakness. Blusiewicz was getting Zito's confidence up.
"Sir Shackleton is a quality horse, and I look for him to stay close to the pace," Zito said of the chestnut colt, who has won three of four starts. "If Lion Heart doesn't want the lead, we'll take it."
Lion Heart, a horse who cost $1.4 million at auction, wanted the lead in the Derby and ran like his tail was on fire before Smarty Jones put him away. In his past three outings, Lion Heart has made the pace against the best 3-year-olds in training and each time finished second.
Before the Derby, Lion Heart's trainer, Patrick Biancone, told the horse's owners he wasn't sure he could beat Smarty Jones.
"Because I was very impressed by Smarty Jones," said Biancone, a French-born trainer living in Paris, Ky. "When I saw him train, I was even more concerned about the fact of trying to beat him. I think he's exceptional. He's a machine, a galloping machine. After I saw him train in [Keeneland], I said to my people, 'This is going to be a tough cookie.' " Biancone, who developed the great European runners Sagace, All Along, Strawberry Road and Triptych, now -- like Zito and the others -- must figure out a way to beat Smarty Jones.
"To be honest with you, if we decide to do something different, I'm not going to tell . . . you know what I mean?" Biancone said. "We will leave it a surprise to the other guys."
Biancone likely will have little choice but to let Lion Heart set sail again as it makes little sense to compromise a speed horse's best asset. If Lion Heart, Sir Shackleton and another newcomer, the exceptionally talented but lightly raced Rock Hard Ten, hook up in a duel, the closers just may have a chance to beat Smarty Jones.
It was the same scenario the connections of late-runners faced in the Kentucky Derby, but this time they might find a drier track to run on.
"Smarty Jones -- he's a freaky good horse," said Steve Taub, owner of deep closer Imperialism, who passed seven horses in the stretch to finish third in Kentucky. "But I can only speak for Imperialism. No sour grapes -- and I can't tell you we would have beaten Smarty Jones -- but I do know we were a sixteenth of a mile behind and were beaten five lengths with a troubled trip."
Taub, a one-time prominent auto dealer in Southern California, talks a great game, as if he's been competing in the Triple Crown for years, even though this is his first one. He is relaxed, tanned and confident -- at least in his oratory -- his horse can be the one to put a chapter on failure in the Smarty Jones story.
"Seattle Slew could not be beaten when he went to Hollywood Park, and he got beat," Taub said. "He was the best in the world, but he got beat. Muhammad Ali, the New York Yankees, Joe Louis -- everyone in history has lost but Rocky Marciano.
"Smarty Jones is a magnificently abnormal example of the species known as the equis, but nobody is unbeatable."