The retirement of Smarty Jones last week hit racing like a heavyweight body blow, leaving a hole where there had been a hugely popular star.
"I was pretty disappointed," said trainer Jason Orman, who will saddle highly talented 3-year-old Rock Hard Ten on Sunday in the Grade I $1 million Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J. "I'd kind of liked to face him again, and he was good for racing."
Off his near-miss in the Belmont Stakes in his quest to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, Smarty Jones had been pointed toward a return in the Haskell. Now, in retirement, his specter will loom large over the race, which in its 37-year history helped produce 6 runners named Horse of the Year, 20 champions and 5 that have gone on to the Hall of Fame.
With the exception of Birdstone and The Cliff's Edge, both trained by Nick Zito and prepping for the $1 million Travers Stakes on Aug. 28 at Saratoga, most of the best 3-year-olds not named Smarty Jones are entered in the Haskell.
Favorite Lion Heart, who made the pace in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes before being overwhelmed both times by Smarty Jones, comes into the 11/8-mile dirt race off a hard-fought victory in a prep at Monmouth. The swift chestnut's trainer, Patrick Biancone, said the colt has matured in the nearly three months since the Preakness. He, like Orman, also had looked forward to tangling again with Smarty Jones.
"I feel very bad for John Servis," Biancone said of Smarty Jones's trainer. "We will never know [how good Smarty Jones might have been]. But racing is like basketball: When Michael Jordan stopped playing, basketball went on. Same with horse racing -- it's a sport and will go on."
While highly unlikely, Biancone did not slam the door shut on Lion Heart beating out Smarty Jones for the title of champion 3-year-old at the end of the year.
"We have to see," Biancone said. "If we're lucky, if Lion Heart jumps up and wins the Haskell, the Travers and Breeders' Cup, he has a chance."
Winning the Haskell will not be easy. Rock Hard Ten showed enormous promise when he finished second by a head in the Santa Anita Derby in April in just his third start. The athletic and muscular son of top sire Kris S. ran well to place second in the Preakness before fading to fifth in the Belmont after badgering Smarty Jones on the pace.
After a month's rest, Rock Hard Ten returned with a dynamic performance, crushing an overmatched field in the Grade II Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park.
Orman believes the blueprint for a victory over Lion Heart has already been laid out for him.
"Our horse has tactical speed, and we can sit right off [Lion Heart]," he said. "Hopefully, we'll get the same trip Smarty Jones got in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness."
Lion Heart actually didn't lead in his Haskell tuneup, coming from off the pace to just get by My Snookie's Boy in the Long Branch Breeders' Cup on July 17. Biancone, however, expects his horse to be much sharper this time out.
"A good horse will use a prep race to prep, and an inferior horse will run his best race," the trainer said.
Royal Assault, Pollard's Vision and Swingforthefences, all quality runners, also could threaten in the Haskell. The latter two, however, were cross-entered in other races this weekend, Pollard's Vision in the West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park and Swingforthefences in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga.