Did jockey Stewart Elliott move too soon?
That is the question that will be asked by countless second-guessers in the immediate aftermath of the Belmont Stakes, and perhaps in the years to come, after Smarty Jones wilted in the stretch and lost his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
Not since Spectacular Bid came to Belmont Park in 1979 has a horse appeared to be such a standout to complete a sweep of America's most famous races. Even habitual skeptics were convinced that the unbeaten 3-year-old from Pennsylvania was a great thoroughbred, worthy of joining the illustrious list of 11 Triple Crown winners. His loss to the 36-to-1 shot Birdstone was not only a disappointment but a shock. Just as Spectacular Bid's loss provoked ample criticism of Ron Franklin's ride, so too will Smarty Jones's trip be subjected to great scrutiny.
Against a field that did not contain much other speed, Elliott urged Smarty Jones from the gate, took a momentary lead and then surveyed the situation. Purge was going for the lead along the rail, and Rock Hard Ten was hustling to get an early striking position outside Purge. So Elliott let Smarty Jones bide his time and sit outside the two leaders -- a seemingly perfect spot.
Early in his career, Smarty Jones had been a headstrong speed horse, but Elliott and trainer John Servis had taught the colt to conserve his energy and sit behind other horses. Smarty Jones had learned his lessons perfectly by the time of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. In both races he sat comfortably behind pace-setter Lion Heart and swooped past him when the jockey asked.
Now he appeared to be in the right spot again, stalking the pace as the leaders went through the first half-mile in 48.3 seconds, a moderate pace on this lightning-fast track. But then the pace accelerated suddenly. After the third quarter of the race was run in a swift 23.4 seconds, Smarty Jones spurted away from his two rivals. As Rock Hard Ten and Purge struggled to keep up, the crowd let out a mighty roar. The 120,139 spectators packing Belmont Park had come in the hope of seeing history made, and they were seeing it.
But people with long memories know that horses don't often seize control of the 11/2-mile Belmont with an early move. Spectacular Bid had surged to take command on the backstretch. Real Quiet had made what appeared to be a winning move on the turn to take a clear lead in 1998 but was overhauled in the final stride. The Belmont stretch is unforgiving; when horses turn into it, they still have to run almost literally to the next county.
When Smarty Jones made that turn with a clear lead, track announcer Tom Durkin exclaimed: "It's been 26 years! It's one furlong away!" But Birdstone was accelerating, eating into the leader's 31/2-length advantage with every stride, and in the final sixteenth of a mile, he spoiled Smarty Jones's bid for history.
Elliott said after the race that, for the first time this spring, Smarty Jones wasn't relaxing in the early stages of the race. "I thought if I could get a clear lead, maybe he'd relax," the veteran rider said. "I was planning on getting away with an easy eighth or quarter [of a mile], but it didn't happen."
Servis saw it the same way, and manfully accepted the blame -- deflecting any potential criticism of his rider. "I worked really hard to take the edge off him, but it obviously didn't work. If he had settled, we would have had a Triple Crown winner."
The films of the race seem to confirm Servis's interpretation. When Elliott went to the lead on the backstretch, he wasn't pushing and shoving aggressively; Smarty Jones wanted to go, and Elliott had little choice but to let him.
If anybody's failing cost Smarty Jones the Triple Crown, it was not Elliott and Servis, but the beloved horse himself. Smarty Jones had accomplished his triumphs in the Derby and Preakness by overcoming his pedigree; he is the son of a miler, and his female family is dominated by sprinters and milers.
But while he had mocked these shortcoming by winning at 11/4 miles, he was playing a different and more demanding game in the Belmont, whose distance has often exposed flaws in horses' bloodlines. Funny Cide had pedigree limitations like Smarty Jones, and won the first two legs of last year's Triple Crown, but the pedigree caught up with him at 11/2 miles.
When Smarty Jones turned into the stretch, he had covered the first 11/4 miles in 2:00.5. If he had run as well as he did in the Preakness, he would have covered the final quarter-mile in 25 seconds and recorded the second-fastest time in Belmont Stakes history. But he virtually collapsed. Birdstone wasn't really accelerating; Smarty Jones was staggering through a final quarter mile in 27 seconds. Like so many Triple Crown aspirants before him, the Belmont distance defeated him.