There is only one way to win horse racing's Triple Crown but many ways to lose it.
The great horses -- Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew -- take the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes by force, with unquestioned authority. Even Affirmed, who had his Alydar, never let his rival past in their three bitter wars. But the near great, and the plain unlucky, find their heartbreak in myriad ways when they try to close the deal in the 11/2-mile Belmont, rightly called "The Test of the Champion."
Spectacular Bid -- "The greatest horse who ever looked through a bridle" -- as his trainer Grover "Bud" Delp says to this day -- dominated the first two legs of the series in 1979 then stepped on a safety pin the morning of the Belmont, received a panicky ride from teenage jockey Ronnie Franklin and finished third to Coastal.
Silver Charm shook off Free House with a furlong to go in the 1997 Belmont but never saw Touch Gold charging far outside down the center of the track. Real Quiet led the Belmont by 71/2 lengths with a quarter-mile to run the following year and lost by a nose to Victory Gallop in a photo finish. Jockey Kent Desormeaux, voted into the National Racing Hall of Fame this past week, has been blamed ever since for moving the horse too soon.
Charismatic took the lead at the top of the Belmont stretch before suddenly giving way and finishing third to Lemon Drop Kid in 1999. Moments after crossing the finish line, distraught jockey Chris Antley dismounted and protectively cradled Charismatic's broken left foreleg in his arms.
In 2002, War Emblem stumbled out of the starting gate. Last year, Funny Cide worked too fast in the days before the Belmont and later was crushed by Empire Maker.
All were good horses who left their owners wondering, "What if?"
"It takes an exceptionally good horse to go all three races of the Triple Crown," said retired trainer Flint "Scotty" Schulhofer, 78, who trained Lemon Drop Kid and 1993 Belmont winner Colonial Affair. "The Belmont is a mile and a half, and the horse has to be a tough horse to take the pressure."
Saturday, the country will find out about the toughness of Smarty Jones, the sixth horse in the past eight years to enter the Belmont Stakes with a chance to join the ranks of 11 Triple Crown immortals that begins with Sir Barton in 1919 and remains paused at Affirmed 26 years ago.
If the nearly red chestnut colt from Philadelphia can win, and he will be heavily favored to do so, he will equal Seattle Slew as the only undefeated winner of the Triple Crown and become the leading money-winning thoroughbred of all time.
Billy Turner, 64, who guided Seattle Slew, marvels at the time that has passed between winners.
"When Slew won the Triple Crown [in 1977], I was the boy wonder," said Turner, who still plies his trade at Belmont Park. "Now, I'm the old man of the turf."
Turner sees similarities in the campaigns of Seattle Slew and Smarty Jones: Both were undefeated in eight starts before the Belmont, and both showed their exceptional talent at age 2. Seattle Slew, however, was a devastating running machine, whereas Smarty Jones displays tactical speed and the ability to strike on command.
"In Slew's case, the only people who didn't believe in him were those who thought he couldn't get a distance of ground because he showed so much speed," Turner said. "Smarty's not that kind of horse. From what I gather, you can do anything you want with him in the afternoon. Slew, you didn't have too many options. If you got in his way, he'd run over you."
Smarty Jones wound up in the Kentucky Derby only after convincing trainer John Servis he was good enough by winning three prep races in Arkansas. Seattle Slew, in contrast, won the Eclipse Award for 2-year-old champions in 1976, and immediately was targeted by Turner to win the Triple Crown. Turner knew what he had and early on looked well beyond the Derby.
"My biggest concern from the beginning was getting this horse under control enough so he would win the Belmont," Turner said. "And that was from January of his 3-year-old year."
The trainer, today, believes the foresight he showed has lacked in recent failed campaigns.
"I don't think any one of them ever went in with the idea of winning the Triple Crown," Turner said of the near misses of trainers Bob Baffert, Wayne Lukas and Barclay Tagg. "The thing [has been] to win the Derby and worry about the rest of it later.
"You really have to have faith in the horse. These big outfits just want to win today because they have another big horse coming up right behind. The smaller trainers just have one big horse. Todd Pletcher nominated 35 horses to the Triple Crown [this year]. People who go with that type of trainer, the horse means nothing to them. It's just a way to get to the Derby."
Even if true, the sting of winning the first two legs of the Triple Crown and failing in the Belmont can take its toll. No one has suffered more recently than Baffert, who won the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet the following year and War Emblem in 2002. In 2001, his Kentucky Derby favorite, Point Given, loomed menacingly in second place after a mile at Churchill Downs but finished an inexplicable fifth. The horse came back to dominate the fields in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Baffert declined repeated interview requests for this story, saying through an assistant, "Use the notes you accumulated the past few years."
When War Emblem, a speed horse who had to have the lead, stumbled out of the starting gate and finished an exhausted eighth to 70-1 long shot Sarava in the Belmont, the Triple Crown had slipped through Baffert's grasp a third time. Normally a prickly humorist, the white-haired trainer looked shaken and drawn outside the barns after the race.
He said he gladly would have traded Point Given's victories to win the Triple Crown.
"Two out of three ain't bad. I hate that song," Baffert said. "I told them [at the post-race news conference] next time I win the Derby, I'm heading home."
Trainer Ken McPeek, who trained Sarava, sympathized with Baffert's plight.
"It's difficult to run a horse back-to-back-to-back," McPeek said recently. "I also think Belmont Park is a very difficult racetrack. If you look at the past Triple Crown winners, they were based in New York -- Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Affirmed -- they were based there.
"It's nicknamed 'Big Sandy' for a reason. It's just a big, sandy racetrack. It's a hard racetrack to get over."
McPeek first tried to win the Belmont with a horse named Pineaff in 1999 and finished ninth. "I shipped in three days out, and it was a disaster," he said. "I brought Sarava in two weeks early. I needed an edge. How can I beat these guys?"
McPeek said Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic and War Emblem all shipped in for the Belmont three days before the race, and all lost. Asked how he knew that, he said, "I studied it. It's my job to know."
Servis has said Smarty Jones will likely arrive in New York on Wednesday, three days out, but McPeek believes "this horse will win it easily."
Servis has experience in 11/2-mile races at Belmont Park, having won the 2000 Coaching Club American Oaks with the filly Jostle, his best horse until Smarty Jones came along. If he is concerned about Smarty Jones falling short as so many others have in recent years, he's not letting on.
"This horse doesn't seem to get tired," Servis said Thursday, "and I feel like he'll enjoy the mile and a half.
"I think there's something with this horse. If -- God forbid -- something happens and they do an autopsy on this horse, they'll find a bigger heart, or bigger vascular channels. . . . I think they'll find something very special about him."
The Derby and Preakness winners that failed in the Belmont in recent years have all -- as Smarty Jones will -- gone off as the favorite in the final race. In hindsight, with their different excuses, they were not good enough.
The difference, however, is those horses had opponents you could make a strong case for, and Smarty Jones does not. Although Sarava never won another race, Touch Gold, Victory Gallop and Lemon Drop Kid all were outstanding runners.
There appears to be no dissent about Smarty Jones.
"He's got everything you ever could want a superhorse to have," said Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron, who won the Belmont twice, with Danzig Connection and Touch Gold. "His demeanor is awesome. He's got tactical speed. He's cooperative with the rider. He trains like he wants to be there. He's got all the qualities of a superstar, and I think he's already there."