Smarty Jones took the Belmont Stakes by the throat coming out of the first turn, moving surprisingly early, as if he couldn't wait to run into history. But when the horse who looked like he might be the one to break the long drought between Triple Crown winners reached the home stretch, the finish line might as well have been miles away.
With a record crowd of 120,139 straining to see Smarty Jones do what five horses in the past seven years have failed to do -- become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 -- Birdstone, a forgotten star from last year, ran down the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner with a relentless drive to take the 11/2-mile Belmont Stakes.
Birdstone's victory, at odds of 36-1, gave New York-based trainer Nick Zito his first Belmont victory after 11 failed attempts.
The son of 1996 Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone beat Smarty Jones by a length, running the 11/2-mile race in 2 minutes 27.50 seconds. Zito's other runner in the race, Royal Assault, finished a distant third.
"As much as I hate to say it, what you just saw is one of the things that makes this game so great," said Smarty Jones's trainer, John Servis, who remained calm and gracious throughout the week as the pressure built.
As the post-race ceremony began in the winner's circle, Zito approached Servis, seemingly to congratulate him and apologize at the same time.
"He's a class guy," Zito said. "He brought this sport to where it should be. Smarty Jones will always be one of the most famous horses."
The race unfolded in a way that looked perfect for Smarty Jones. Coming out of the No. 9 post position on the far outside, jockey Stewart Elliott immediately put Smarty Jones into position, racing just off leader Purge and Rock Hard Ten as the field approached the first turn.
The two front-runners set a moderate opening quarter-mile of 241/5 seconds and a half-mile in 483/5 seconds.
In his victories in the Derby and Preakness, Smarty Jones relaxed kindly for Elliott, moving on pace-setter Lion Heart only when the jockey asked. But in the Belmont, Smarty Jones appeared keyed up. After the half-mile, he dragged the jockey to the lead, and there was still a mile to go.
"I had trouble getting him to settle," Elliott said afterward. "When I got him into the clear lead, I figured he might be able to relax."
Eddington, ridden by jockey Jerry Bailey, dogged Smarty Jones on his outside, while Rock Hard Ten, second in the Preakness, battled him on the inside.
A mile and a quarter into the race, Smarty Jones seized command and looked like a winner. He opened up by 31/2 lengths as Purge faded and Rock Hard Ten slowly tired out. Throughout the race, jockey Edgar Prado had kept Birdstone behind but in contact with the warring leaders up front. When the field moved off the far turn, Prado struck Birdstone twice with his whip and attacked.
Slowly, Birdstone began to cut into Smarty Jones's advantage. Elliott cracked Smarty Jones twice with his whip, peeked over his right shoulder and desperately rode for the wire.
"It's been 26 years!" track announcer Tom Durkin cried. "One furlong away!"
But Birdstone had made up six lengths in the stretch and won by a length.
After the race, Prado, like Zito, apologized for the victory.
"I'm very sorry for Mr. Servis and the connections of Smarty Jones," said the former Maryland riding star, who has gone on to be one of the top jockeys in the country. "But this is my job, and I had to do this."
It wasn't the first time Prado had upset a horse going for the Triple Crown. In 2002, when War Emblem had won the first two legs of the series, Prado rode Sarava, at odds of 70-1, the longest-priced winner in the history of the race.
Throughout the three weeks since the Preakness, Servis had put Smarty Jones through long, steady gallops in preparation for the enormous task of running 11/2 miles. While the other trainers in the race put speed works into their horses, Servis just wanted Smarty Jones relaxed. After the race, he said he had failed in that job.
"I wasn't feeling good down the back side," Servis said. "The one thing I was worried about since the Preakness was I couldn't get him settled enough. But we had a really good run, and we won't put our heads down. We're proud."
For Zito, 56, the victory ended not only years of frustration trying to win the Belmont -- five times he finished second -- but also disappointment in Birdstone, a colt who was a star as a 2-year-old, but until today a failure at 3.
Zito skipped the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall after Birdstone won the prestigious Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, knowing that no horse had ever won the Juvenile and gone on to take the Kentucky Derby.
But Birdstone flopped in his Derby prep race, finishing fifth in the Lanes End Stakes at Turfway Park, and then ran a dismal eighth at Churchill Downs.
"He finished eighth, not 18th," Zito said hopefully. "He won the Champagne. You have to keep giving him a chance."
The trainer bypassed the Preakness Stakes and took Birdstone to Saratoga in upstate New York to prepare for the Belmont. Whatever he did worked because Birdstone beat Smarty Jones, put the end to Triple Crown dreams of racing fans around the country, and ran the best race of his life.