The stakes barn at Pimlico had the look of a midway at the fair grounds the day after the carnival left town. Garbage lay strewn along the perimeter and the front stalls were empty of horses, the identifying wall plaques like the snazzy script "NZ" for trainer Nick Zito taken down.
The vanquished runners in the Preakness Stakes vanned out of town in the pre-dawn hours this morning, but around on the back side, Smarty Jones lingered happily a little while longer. With first the Kentucky Derby and now the second leg of racing's Triple Crown in his saddle bag, the tough little chestnut colt took the opportunity to ease off the bit and enjoy himself.
Well-wishers and members of the media gathered to say farewell and poke around the history-making horse once more, while Smarty Jones posed like a ham for pictures, ears pricked and his head bobbing up and down. He nibbled a visitor's hand and bent down for petting. He periodically checked on his pal in the neighboring stall, the 23-year-old pony Butterscotch, and chomped on a hay ball pinned to the wall. If this was a horse that the day before had won the Preakness by the widest margin in the race's 129-year history, it sure didn't show.
"He came out of the race terrific," said trainer John Servis, who took one look at Smarty Jones, didn't find a scratch, and drove off for two days of peace and quiet a couple of hours before the horse boarded a van and headed home to Philadelphia. "There was not one oat in that feed tub this morning. It's incredible. I was shocked how he came out of the Derby. I really was. I thought it would really take a lot out of him, and it really didn't. He's just as good [after the Preakness], if not better."
With a swift and breathtaking move inside his broken rival Lion Heart on the far turn, Smarty Jones demolished his nine Preakness opponents Saturday and just as surely shut up any skeptics who found fault with his undefeated record before the race. The winning time of 1 minute 55.59 seconds for the 13/16-mile race didn't alter history, but the 111/2-length margin of victory put to rest the record that stood since 1873, when Survivor won by 10.
"He's the best horse I ever saw," said trainer Martin Ciresa, whose Little Matth Man might have caught a glimpse of Smarty Jones crossing the finish line from eighth place, 21 lengths back. "He came back looking like he never ran, like he was just getting ready for the next race. Amazing."
The next race, of course, is the Belmont Stakes, the 11/2 -mile "Test of Champions" on June 5 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y.
Rock Hard Ten, the huge, dark brown horse that closed well to finish second in the Preakness, will try Smarty Jones again in the Belmont, as will third-place finisher Eddington. Zito said his The Cliff's Edge, forced to scratch from the Preakness because of an abscess in a foot, might also run in the race.
"You never know with this kind of thing," said Zito, who also could run Royal Assault, who won the Sir Barton Stakes on the Preakness undercard. "It could take two hours, two days, two weeks or two months for him to get over it."
Some of the Derby horses who sat out the Preakness, such as Maryland-based Tapit, Florida Derby winner Friends Lake and Master David, likely will return for the final leg of the series. Newcomers could include Relaxed Gesture, who would fly in from Ireland for master conditioner Dermot Weld, winner of the 1990 Belmont with Go And Go.
Friends Lake and Master David will be among those running Saturday in the Grade II $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes at 11/8 miles at Belmont.
Friends Lake trainer John Kimmel was impressed by Smarty Jones, but not exactly scared away.
"Smarty Jones was the only one who showed up in the Preakness," Kimmel said. "Somebody has to run against him."
Smarty Jones is expected to do little more than walk the next couple of days before returning to the track to gallop on Wednesday.
Servis, who has battled a cold this week, appears to be more worn down by the grind of the Triple Crown than his horse.
"This is the first time I've been on this road, and I realize now why there has only been a handful of horses to win the Triple Crown," he said. "It's a very grueling road, and we've been on it since January. As long as [Smarty Jones] continues to do how he is, we're going to go into the Belmont, and we'll be going with a loaded gun."
Preakness Notes: Smarty Jones's victory in the Preakness delivered a 7.2 overnight rating with a 16 share for NBC Sports, the highest Preakness rating since 1990 and a 29 percent improvement over last year's race when Funny Cide won, according to Nielsen Media Research.