Television was ready for a coronation Saturday before the Belmont Stakes.
"He's the talk of the entire United States of America," Kenny Mayne said of Smarty Jones, the horse who wouldn't be king, at the start of ESPN's pre-race show (a huge improvement, by the way, over the network's slapdash Kentucky Derby preview).
"The only thing in doubt is the margin of victory," ESPN's Kurt Hoover said.
"There's no such thing as a cinch in thoroughbred racing, but I believe that this is a great horse and I think he is as close as a cinch as you can possibly get," NBC's Mike Battaglia said. "If anything, this horse could show improvement today."
"Maybe the difference between the sense of anticipation here today and recent years is this: Horses like War Emblem or Funny Cide last year were viewed as horses that could win the Triple Crown. Most experts think that Smarty Jones should win it," Bob Costas said to introduce NBC's coverage. "Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat to a 31-length victory in the  Belmont, one of the most legendary achievements in horse racing history, said he could see Smarty Jones winning it by 25 lengths."
And who could blame them for their premature accolades, or for the endless shots of Smarty Jones horsing around in his stable before the race?
Smarty Jones was the first true champion horse in the era post-"Seabiscuit" (the motion picture, not the legend itself). Many people saw and loved the movie and/or read Laura Hillenbrand's exceptional book, and those same people, who previously didn't know a furlong from a foot-long, then went out and saw Smarty Jones win the Kentucky Derby and turn the field into glue with his 111/2-length victory at the Preakness three weeks ago.
The staggering overnight numbers NBC pulled in for the race back this up. The Belmont drew a 13.4 rating and 27 share overall, the best for that race since Seattle Slew clinched the Triple Crown in 1977. The two-minute race itself drew a 15.6/31. A sizable chunk of the country, not just the chattering class, was ready for its new champion.
And then . . .
"The whip is out on Smarty Jones. It's been 26 years and it's just one furlong away!" Race announcer Tom Durkin was ready, too.
And then . . .
"Can Smarty Jones hold on?"
And then . . .
"Here comes Birdstone!"
"Birdstone surges past!"
Durkin, whose earlier NBC piece on the other close-but-not-quite horses of the recent past eloquently and honestly tempered the pre-race hosannas, sounded as if he was calling the action as his bride left him on the altar.
Someone had to voice the disappointment of the record 120,000 in attendance (though their stunned silence said plenty itself), and Durkin did it with spectacular, soul-crushed devastation.
One only hopes that Durkin gets the chance to call a Triple Crown winner. We all hoped (and thought) he would get the chance Saturday.
He didn't. In the meantime, go rent "Seabiscuit."