The long wait is almost over. The horse racing world, which has longed for a Triple Crown winner to adorn and advertise its sport for the last 26 years, seems finally to have found its glorious standard-bearer.
Few could have dreamed it just a few weeks ago, but Smarty Jones -- the people's horse, the betting and sentimental favorite, perhaps the true Seabiscuit of his era -- not only won the Preakness on Saturday, but trounced his outclassed rivals by 111/2 lengths, the largest winning margin in the 129 years of this classic.
Secretariat won his Belmont by 31 lengths in 1973 and the world may never see another horse run that way. No comparison is claimed. Smarty's time of 1 minute 55.59 seconds was excellent, but not the Preakness record. However, the way the chestnut colt exploded away from this field, gaining ground with every stride and crossing the finish line so fresh that his ears were pricking, evoked a similar image of complete domination over every horse in his generation.
"I never thought he'd blow 'em away like he blew 'em away," said 78-year-old owner Roy Chapman, echoing the thoughts of everyone in the sport, including the jockeys of Smarty's totally beaten rivals. The men aboard the place and show nags in this race did everything but concede the Belmont after this race.
"He's very, very special. We might be seeing a Triple Crown winner," said Gary Stevens, who rode Rock Hard Ten to a distant and fading second place. At the moment Stevens tried to put his horse into another gear, he suddenly realized that "Smarty Jones had four more gears. He looks like he was just getting started [at the finish]. Smarty really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away."
Our horses "might have been born in the wrong year with Smarty Jones," said Mike Smith, who rode pacesetter and Kentucky Derby runner-up Lion Heart to a completely beaten fourth-place finish, 14 lengths back.
Go on, who is going to beat this Smarty pants in the Belmont in three weeks? The little horse from Philadelphia races so tractably that he seems to know exactly what amount of speed is wanted, needed and when. "He's 'push-button' now. . . . He'll do whatever I want him to do," said jockey Stewart Elliott. "He wasn't even blowing that much after the race."
In the last couple of decades, Philadelphians have talked about how much they want a parade down Broad Street to celebrate a great sports victory. Yet buzzard luck always seems to prevent it. Is it possible that a horse, not a team like the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers or Flyers will actually get that parade? Why, Smarty could pull his own float!
Wags in Philly now have an explanation for why a horse might actually break the city's sports curse. "He's a horse. He doesn't know he's from Philadelphia," they say.
Everything about this race seemed to be a foreshadowing of a strong performance at Belmont. "I haven't been able to get him tired [in training]," said trainer John Servis, who freely admitted that he was amazed to the point of disbelief by the rapid improvement of a horse he already thought was wonderful. "He's matured, learned how to rate. He has tactical speed. He's . . . smart."
The phrase "that's horse racing" captures the utter unpredictability of the sport. But something truly amazing or ludicrously unlucky will have to befall Smarty Jones to prevent his date with history. He won in the mud in the Kentucky Derby. He beat five new rivals in the Preakness who were not at Churchill Downs. There is no new dangerous "contender" who will appear next month in Elmont, N.Y. Just some variation of the same horses he's trounced, plus perhaps an additional long shot or two.
Recent history, of course, preaches caution, especially when the winner's story is so captivating. Five times in the previous seven years, a 3-year-old has had a chance in the Belmont to win the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in '78. But each time, including Funny Cide's defeat by Empire Maker last year, something has stopped that celebration. This time, knock on wood, perhaps only an injury would suffice. And, according to Smarty's trainer and jockey, he came out of this race looking superb.
"He just exploded. I looked back and nobody was even coming," said jockey Elliott, who swooped inside leader Lion Heart and created a perfect trip for Smarty, not that he needed it. Elliott noticed those pricking ears at the finish, too. "That's good, that's very good," he said.
For the next three weeks, every aspect of the Jones's saga will be reexamined. Chapman, in a wheelchair because of emphysema and needing a tube in his nose to aide his breathing, will enjoy every moment.
Asked if he was so old that he might actually have seen Seabiscuit race, Chapman said, "What the hell do you mean, 'Did I see him?' I trained him!"
After enjoying the laughter his joke evoked, Chapman reflected on the increasingly legendary deeds of his horse that has now won all eight of his races on eight different tracks at eight different distances. No horse has entered the Belmont unbeaten since Seattle Slew in 1977.
"Someday somewhere he's going to get beat," said Chapman. "But we're going to put it off as long as we can."
In Kentucky, Elliott was a hero for his excellent ride in the Derby. This time, however, the most praise should probably go to Servis, who gave Smarty Jones almost no hard work whatsoever in the last two weeks, claiming that he knew his horse was razor sharp and far more in danger of being worn out than underworked.
"Last time, he credited me," Elliott said of Servis. "Today, I'm going to credit him. That horse just took me around the track." And left nine rivals so dazzlingly far behind that hopes for a Triple Crown winner -- so long overdue -- have suddenly turned into a quiet and deeply satisfying confidence for all within the racing world.
After all, Smarty Jones can't read the papers, listen to talk radio or choke on pressure. He doesn't even know he's from Philly. Sometimes, even the smartest horse can be just dumb enough for the job at hand.