The gathered media horde lined up like paparazzi along the red carpet on Oscar Night. When Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones emerged from the van, in from Philadelphia, just before 1 p.m. today, he walked past the wave of clicking camera shutters with the casual disinterest of a bored international film star.
And said about as much.
With the 129th Preakness Stakes just days away, the undefeated Derby winner's arrival at the Pimlico stakes barn signaled the countdown has begun in earnest. The van that delivered Smarty Jones, befitting the working-class connections of his handlers, certainly wasn't the palace on wheels some of the larger racing outfits in the country use. But Smarty Jones appeared to like it just fine, bobbing his head and nibbling hay before coming out.
"He traveled well," said stable manager Bill Foster, who supervised the trip to Baltimore, "and [trainer] John [Servis] hasn't done anything hard with him at all."
After a week of galloping at Philadelphia Park, but without any serious, hard workouts, Smarty Jones took up residence in stall No. 40 in the stakes barn.
The stall is reserved for the winner of the Kentucky Derby, although some trainers in the past have chosen to stable elsewhere to avoid the hoopla. A plaque above the stall lists its prior residents: Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence and others.
"I never thought I'd be here," said Foster, glancing up at the plaque, "let alone the horse."
In his two days in Baltimore leading up to the Preakness, Smarty Jones will do nothing more on the track than gallop lightly at 6:45 a.m.
Most of the other contenders have had at least one workout since the Kentucky Derby, but Servis has insisted his horse is "dead fit" and ready.
Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg came by the barn after the Derby and said, 'The less you do before the Preakness, the better,' " Foster said.
Van Berg won the race twice, in 1984 with Gate Dancer and 1987 with Alysheba.
Once he settled in, Smarty Jones turned to face the back of the stall, coming back around once to rub noses with his pony pal, Scotch with a Twist, known as Butterscotch.
Soon afterward, Foster bathed Smarty Jones and then took him out for a walk to cool down in the heat.
Down the shed row, the massive and imposing Rock Hard Ten also got used to his temporary home.
Twenty minutes before Smarty Jones arrived, Rock Hard Ten took the crowd aback, emerging from his van looking like a dark brown tank. Trainer Jason Orman wanted to run the colt in the Kentucky Derby but couldn't break into the main draw because of a lack of earnings in graded stakes.
Even with just three lifetime runs, Rock Hard Ten, with his raw speed, is considered a threat in the Preakness.
"He reminds me of Tiznow," Orman said, comparing Rock Hard Ten to the two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic. "When we watched him work, he looked like he was going [quarter-miles] in 14 [seconds] and he'd be doing them in 12."
Only one horse in the past 20 years, Red Bullet in 2000, has won the Preakness without having first run in the Kentucky Derby. Orman, when reminded of this, looked over at Rock Hard Ten, lolling in the heat.
"Hopefully, he's that good of a horse," he said.