As if Smarty Jones didn't already hold all the aces going into the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, the undefeated colt further solidified his prospects for becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years with an ideal post position draw Wednesday at Belmont Park.
With two spots in the starting gate remaining in the random selection -- the rail and the No. 9 post -- Smarty Jones received the outside slot, which will allow jockey Stewart Elliott to watch the flow of the race develop going into the first turn. The 11/2-mile Belmont has no automatic pace-setter entered, a role Lion Heart filled in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and has the makings of a tactical battle, assuming Smarty Jones doesn't just go to the front and blow away the field.
"I'm much happier with the nine than I would have been with the one," said John Servis, who joined most of the other trainers in the race at the dais in Belmont's Terrace Dining Room while Smarty Jones traveled by van to the track from Philadelphia accompanied by a police motorcade. "The game plan we've had going all along with [Elliott] is to watch what's going on inside of him and sit out there, get comfortable and decide where he wants to be.
"Stewie doesn't have to worry about what's going on outside of him, just what's going on inside of him and secure a good position by the time he gets to the first turn."
Eight other horses signed on to run in the 136th Belmont, a $1 million race for 3-year-olds with a $5 million bonus to Smarty Jones, the 2-5 morning-line favorite, if he can win the Triple Crown. With the rising belief that Smarty Jones might be a truly great racehorse, New York Racing Association Senior Vice President Bill Nader said he expects Belmont's attendance record of 103,222 and one-day betting handle of $13,165,397 to fall.
"It will probably mark the most money wagered on one thoroughbred in one race in racing history," Nader said.
No trainer in attendance had the temerity to suggest his horse might have a chance to beat Smarty Jones. Instead, they strove to justify their presence ("I told the owner I never saw any horse win a race in the stall," said Angel Medina, trainer of 50-1 shot Caiman) or expressed satisfaction with the prospect of coming in second.
Tom Durkin, the track announcer who acted as master of ceremonies for the draw breakfast, ribbed trainer Nick Zito about his five second-place finishes in 11 attempts at winning the Belmont. Zito, who has Birdstone and Royal Assault in the race, said he wouldn't mind another.
"Second to Smarty Jones? Why not?" Zito said. "Second to a hero; I'll take that."
Purge and Master David were late additions to the entries. Purge, a 5-1 second choice, was thumped by Smarty Jones in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby this spring but looked good winning the Peter Pan Stakes on May 22 at Belmont Park. Master David, in the hands of Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, finished 181/2 lengths behind Smarty Jones in the Kentucky Derby and returned to finish third in the Peter Pan.
Trainer Todd Pletcher hesitated to commit to running Purge in the Belmont after the Peter Pan, "mainly [because] we just tried to beat the horse twice and couldn't do it," he said. "Like everyone else in the race, Purge has to run the race of his life while Smarty Jones doesn't.
"When we went to the Rebel, we thought we were on the [Kentucky] Derby trail," Pletcher said. "If we went a different route than through Arkansas, we could have gone to the Derby undefeated ourselves."
Frankel, who broke up Funny Cide's bid for the Triple Crown last year with Empire Maker in the Belmont, tried to make the case for taking on the most dominant-looking 3-year-old in years.
"I keep going back to Spectacular Bid [who lost the Belmont in 1979 at odds of 1-5] because I didn't think he could get beat," Frankel said. "Horses are like strawberries -- strawberries today, jam tomorrow. Things can happen, and you can't win if you're not in."