Not many people argue against Smarty Jones crossing the finish line first Saturday in the 136th Belmont Stakes, but which horse will make the pace in the race is an entirely different story.
Without the presence of a habitual front-runner such as Lion Heart, who led the way in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, setting a target for Smarty Jones to attack, how the arduous 11/2-mile race unfolds has puzzled the trainers entered.
"I have a vision of how the race might set up," said John Servis, trainer of Smarty Jones, "but I don't want to put too much in [jockey Stewart Elliott's] head because that might not be the way it does set up."
That has passed for clarity this week.
A lot rides on how this race develops: If Smarty Jones can duplicate his devastating Preakness victory, he will join Seattle Slew as the only undefeated winner of racing's Triple Crown. He also would become the leading money-winner of all time, with the $600,000 winner's share of the $1 million purse plus a $5 million bonus for sweeping the series bringing his lifetime earnings to $13,013,155 in nine races.
No horse has won the Belmont leading gate to wire since Swale in 1984. Except in rare instances, such as when Secretariat blazed every step of the way in 1973 to win by 31 lengths and set the world record of 2 minutes 24 seconds for 1 1/2 miles, most front-runners wilt under the taxing demand to run one steady quarter-mile after another.
Funny Cide, who like Smarty Jones won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, went into the Belmont last year as the dominant speed horse. After a startlingly fast five-furlong workout the week of the race, Funny Cide made the early pace until he was passed by eventual winner Empire Maker with three-eighths of a mile to go.
Servis, who has put Smarty Jones through long gallops leading up to the Belmont rather than short, sharp workouts, went out of his way this week to dispel comparisons to Funny Cide.
"When [Smarty Jones] ran in the Rebel [Stakes], I had a reporter call me and say, 'I saw a workout with the horse and it was 582/5 seconds, and that's a fast workout,' " Servis said. "And he said, 'That's what Funny Cide did, and he went out and got beat.' I wanted to say something and bit my tongue, but I wanted to say this horse is not Funny Cide. He's a quality horse."
Still, Smarty Jones, who has proven tactical ability, has yet to run without a horse in front of him. In seven of his eight starts, he has used his speed to gain position just off the leader and waited for Elliott to ask him to go past. In his second start, Smarty Jones broke 10th in a field of 11 and then ran away to a 15-length victory.
Only Purge, the 5-1 second choice in the field, has the speed to beat Smarty Jones to the lead -- if both try for the front.
Purge has played that game twice -- in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby -- and both times Smarty Jones raced off his flank and put him away.
Since then, Purge has emerged as possibly the second-best 3-year-old in the country. He whipped a talented field in the Peter Pan Stakes on May 22 at Belmont Park by laying off the pace in Smarty Jones style.
"We want to be in a position to make a move when we want to instead of letting Smarty Jones dictate," said Purge's trainer, Todd Pletcher. "If we go [to the front], Smarty Jones at some point is going to go before we want him to. If we're in front when that happens, that's sooner than we want it to be."
With Smarty Jones breaking from the outside post position, Elliott will be able to watch the action unfold on the inside. Purge, meantime, won't have that luxury.
Purge is "in a precarious position there because he has to commit one way or another," said Mark Hennig, who trains Eddington. "You may see Purge go to the lead and be committed to it. All the talk about him being the stalker might not even happen. He might be an improved horse since he last met Smarty, but Smarty's an improved horse, too."
The other trainers in the race rest their chances on the hope that Smarty Jones doesn't enjoy racing without a target to run at and also can't handle the distance. It's a small hope.
Asked where he would like to see his horse, Rock Hard Ten, positioned in the race, trainer Jason Orman said, "In the winner's circle."
Trainer Barclay Tagg, far removed from the pressure of last year's Triple Crown, enjoyed this morning talking about the Belmont without having to worry about competing in it as he did last year with Funny Cide.
"I didn't expect Funny Cide to be on the front end," Tagg said. "But I also didn't expect three feet of mud and to run poorly."
Tagg said the 1 1/2-mile distance is the wild card for all the horses in the race, but didn't see Smarty Jones losing.
"I don't think they have anything to be concerned about at all," he said. "He's just a better horse. Unless he can't get the mile and a half -- and any horse can go a mile and a half if they go slow enough -- I can't imagine he'll have any trouble at all."