In the two weeks since Smarty Jones galloped through the slop to win the Kentucky Derby, trainer John Servis has gone from uncertainty whether his horse would even run in the Preakness Stakes to cautious optimism to the glow of quiet confidence.
With final preparation complete Friday morning, and Smarty Jones looking fit and on edge, Servis had nothing to do but wait out the long string of hours until 6:15 p.m. on Saturday for the 129th Preakness, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown.
Smarty Jones has given Servis plenty of reason to relax. The 3-year-old son of Elusive Quality handily whipped the four horses returning from the Derby to try him again, and the five newcomers, while formidable, never have run as fast as he has.
Undefeated in seven starts, Smarty Jones has proven he can get the 13/16th-mile Preakness distance, and galloped vigorously throughout the week. As the 2-5 favorite after the first day of wagering for the Grade I $1 million Preakness, there is not much to dislike.
"If he didn't run another race, I don't know if they'd consider him a great horse, but they'd sure mention him when they'd talk about great horses," Servis said Friday morning. "I can't see any excuses for him. I am really happy with how he's entering the race."
The Preakness lost one of its primary contenders Friday morning when trainer Nick Zito officially scratched his top runner, The Cliff's Edge, because of an abscess in the horse's right foot. The powerful, dark brown colt finished fifth in the Derby after losing his two front shoes in the race, and Zito expected a return to form in the Preakness for his Blue Grass Stakes winner.
Zito, 56, sounded exhausted and defeated when breaking the news. He had kept a hopeful vigil since discovering The Cliff's Edge in discomfort Wednesday morning. The abscess popped the next day and the horse briefly improved, "but he wasn't the same way today. I decided to scratch him as soon as I saw him," Zito said.
"Great expectations bring great disappointments. We tried everything, but you know what? Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better."
The running of the Preakness could shape up much the same way the Kentucky Derby unfolded, with the fleet Lion Heart expected to set the pace while Smarty Jones finds position in a flight of stalking runners. Zito has another runner in the race, Sir Shackleton, and that colt has displayed a pace-pressing style in winning three of four starts. Another newcomer, the giant and powerfully built Rock Hard Ten, is even more imposing and also likes to run close to the lead.
At 8-1, Rock Hard Ten is being given serious consideration despite having run just three races. Jockey Gary Stevens thinks so highly of the horse, he will take a flight in from France, where he has been riding this summer, just for the mount.
"We will get an idea of just how good this horse is tomorrow," said Rock Hard Ten's trainer, Jason Orman.
Eddington, like Rock Hard Ten, had been pointed toward the Kentucky Derby but failed to draw into the race because of a lack of earnings in graded stakes races. Trainer Mark Hennig shifted gears, took aim at the Preakness and put a strong string of works into the horse at Belmont Park.
Eddington, a son of 1990 Derby winner Unbridled, finished a battling third behind Tapit in the Wood Memorial on April 10 at Aqueduct. With top jockey Jerry Bailey aboard, Hennig is hoping to show his horse belonged at Churchill Downs.
"We would have liked to have had the opportunity to go in the Derby," Hennig said. "But after the weather at Churchill, you have to hang your hat on something, and there's a chance that missing the Derby might work out as a small blessing. I guess that's putting a positive spin on the situation."
Again, as in the Derby, the connections of the deep closers will be hoping a fast pace wears out both Lion Heart and the stalkers. Imperialism, third in the Derby, and Borrego would be the likely beneficiaries.
Trainer Patrick Biancone, however, isn't worried about being victimized in a pace war. Leaning against a fence this morning as his Lion Heart grazed on grass behind him, Biancone said he figures he was one horse away from a possible Triple Crown.
"It's unfortunate my horse and Smarty were born the same year," Biancone said. "Two years ago, it would have been a walkover. But we don't want them to give it to us, and we don't want to steal it. We want to earn it."