It is lunchtime at Barn 11 on the backstretch at Philadelphia
Park. Oversized wooden sawhorses and yards of yellow police tape
isolate the home of Smarty Jones, the 3-year-old chestnut colt
who would, with a victory in this Saturday's Belmont Stakes,
become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 26 years. Inside a
cluttered 12-by-18-foot office at the end of the shedrow, trainer
John Servis sits at a desk next to his wife, Sherry, who has
taken on the role of publicity manager. Cellphones ring
incessantly. A portable air conditioner drones on in the corner,
ruffling the countless piles of paper around the room. For his
midday meal John hoists a plastic bottle of Tums, dumps several
into his mouth and washes them down with the last mouthful from a
20-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew. He laughs at his nutritional
choice and shrugs.
Servis arrived home on May 16, the day after the unbeaten Smarty
Jones crushed the Preakness field by a record 11 1/2 lengths for
his eighth straight win. The 1 1/2-mile Belmont lay three weeks
ahead, beckoning Smarty to run further with the baton he has
taken from Funny Cide and Seabiscuit, drawing fans back to a once
wildly popular sport. Smarty is a nearly perfect racehorse,
hardly tired after the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, growing
fitter and more mature each day. Horsemen gush over him. "He's a
gift from God, that little horse, the way he keeps on running,"
says trainer Bob Baffert, who won the first two legs of the
Triple Crown with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet ('98) and War
Emblem (2002). "That track at Pimlico was deep that day, and he
made it look fast. He's a freak of nature. If he wins the Belmont
the way he won the Preakness, people will put him in the same
category as Secretariat." Now it was Servis's job to keep Smarty
just right for three more weeks, with a curious and hungry world
"There's an awful lot of pressure in those three weeks," says
Barclay Tagg, who trained Funny Cide to victories in last year's
Derby and Preakness before losing to Empire Maker in the Belmont.
When do you work your horse and at what distance? When do you
bring him to New York? How do you manage the media? "The day
after the Preakness," says Servis, "I said to Sherry, 'This is
going to be a challenge.'"
Smarty Jones is the 10th horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win the
Derby and the Preakness, and this will be the sixth time in eight
years that the Triple Crown has been on the line at Belmont Park.
Yet sealing the deal remains extraordinarily difficult. There
have been only 11 Triple Crown winners. "Horses have been close
lately, but they haven't won it because they just weren't good
enough," says Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed. Here are the
reasons why other horses have failed--and why Smarty Jones may
June 6, 2004
1. BATTLE-WEARINESS To prepare for the Kentucky Derby, a colt
must run a series of prep races in the winter and early spring.
Then, to earn the Triple Crown, he must win not only the Derby
but also the Preakness two weeks later and, three weeks after
that, the Belmont at a taxing distance most horses will never
again run. It is a brutal schedule in an era when horses rarely
run more than once a month. "If you win the Derby, you should win
the Preakness, because it's only two weeks later and you've got
the fittest horse in the bunch," says Baffert. "But in those
three weeks before the Belmont, things start to happen."
Pleasant Colony (1981), Sunday Silence ('89) and Silver Charm all
had exhausting races leading up to the Belmont. Last year Funny
Cide ran desperately hard in the Wood Memorial (where he finished
second), the Derby and the Preakness (where he won by nearly 10
lengths under enthusiastic whipping from Jose Santos). "Each race
was better than the one before," says Tagg. "Eventually that
caught up to him."
In contrast, Servis has handled Smarty Jones as if he were a
robin's egg in a windstorm. He eschewed the lucrative prep races
in California, Florida, Kentucky and New York and took his horse
to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, where he went 3 for 3, learning to
race without suffering any damage. Smarty won the Derby and the
Preakness easily. Five days after the latter, he galloped at
Philadelphia Park and wanted to run free so badly that he started
screeching, a reaction Servis had never seen before. "John Servis
took the softer route with his horse and came to the Derby with a
full tank," says trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of a record 13
Triple Crown races. "As a result, he's sitting on a relatively
fresh horse and should be fairly well set up to get the job done
in the Belmont."
It helps that there is no Empire Maker awaiting Smarty Jones in
New York. In a smallish field that could include anywhere from
five to eight opponents, the most genuine threat is Rock Hard
Ten, the massive, lightly raced (just four starts) Preakness
runner-up, while the enigmatic Eddington presents an intriguing
betting interest. Save for Smarty Jones, the only other likely
starter from the Kentucky Derby is Birdstone, a measure of how
thoroughly Smarty has chased off the 3-year-old class with his
2. TOO MUCH PRESSURE When a Triple Crown candidate arrives at
Belmont Park, he moves into a zoo. Hundreds of reporters,
photographers and other onlookers crowd the barn every day. "No
matter what anyone says, the daily media crush at the barn is a
tremendous adrenaline rush for the horse," says Tagg. The trainer
must give a brain-dulling press conference every day, and all his
training decisions are minutely scrutinized.
To avoid that, Servis was expected to keep Smarty Jones at
Philadelphia Park until the middle of Belmont week. His barn
alongside the Pennsylvania Turnpike was off-limits to the public
and the media. "Things are as normal as they can possibly be," he
said in the week following the Preakness. "Jack Van Berg [who
trained Alysheba to Derby and Preakness victories in 1987] called
me and said, 'John, don't let anybody train your horse for you.'"
Van Berg did, however, pass along the schedule he followed with
"I told him all I did was gallop him between the Derby and
Preakness," says Van Berg, "and then we did one long, slow breeze
before the Belmont, because you don't want to put speed into him.
They put speed into Funny Cide last year [five furlongs in a
blistering 57 4/5 seconds during Belmont week], and they
couldn't rate him in the race." Servis has used the same approach
as Van Berg, galloping Smarty Jones before the Preakness and, for
the Belmont, sending him on just one seven-furlong breeze, in a
relatively slow 1:29 1/5 seconds last Friday at Philadelphia
3. WRONG RUNNING STYLE In 2002 War Emblem looked to be the best
of a mediocre 3-year-old crop. He had won the Derby and the
Preakness on the front end and was a distinct threat to do so in
the Belmont, where he went off as the 6-5 favorite. However, he
stumbled badly out of the gate, didn't make the early lead and
finished a soundly beaten eighth. "He was a good horse, but a
one-dimensional horse," says Baffert. "When he didn't break, we
were finished." In the Belmont a come-from-behind horse needs
pace in front of him, and a speed horse needs to make an easy
Smarty Jones is the tactical dream horse. "He's got speed, and I
mean brilliant speed, and he's got stamina that nobody thought he
would have with his breeding," says Servis. Smarty is what riders
call a "push-button horse." He can provide a burst at any time
and then resume cruising until he makes his run to the finish. It
enables him to avoid tactical traps and largely to dictate the
way a race is run. "Smarty Jones takes other horses out of their
games," says Lukas, "but they can't take him out of his game."
4. JOCKEY'S ERROR Hall of Fame rider Chris McCarron won more than
7,000 races in his career, including the Derby and Preakness on
Alysheba. "But riding in the Belmont Stakes with a Triple Crown
on the line is a unique experience," says McCarron, "and anybody
who tells you there's not a lot more pressure involved is either
lying or has never been in that position. I'm ashamed--but not
reluctant--to say that it was the most nervous I've ever been."
In the Belmont, McCarron and Alysheba endured a nightmare trip
before finishing fourth, more than 14 lengths behind Bet Twice.
"Pilot error" is how Van Berg describes it. "I told Chris he'd be
in front the whole way. He broke two steps in front, then dropped
back and got in trouble all the way around."
Says McCarron, "I performed poorly in the race. Whether it was a
matter of succumbing to the pressure, I don't know."
The Triple Crown pressure, the $5 million bonus on the line--"The
money warps their heads," says Lukas--and the 1 1/2-mile distance
all make the race an exacting test for a jockey. In 1979 the
inexperience of Ronnie Franklin may have contributed to
Spectacular Bid's stunning loss, at 1-5 odds. (Trainer Bud Delp
has long maintained that when Bid stepped on a pin on the morning
of the race, he was compromised. "That might be true," says
McCarron, "but Ronnie let him run a lot sooner than he should
have.") Similarly, Baffert holds Kent Desormeaux responsible for
moving too early on Real Quiet (he lost by a nose to Victory
Gallop), and Lukas remains critical of the late Chris Antley for
keeping Charismatic too close to a fast pace in 1999.
The racing world has marveled at journeyman Stewart Elliott's
cool, professional work aboard Smarty Jones. "The guy is so calm,
he must set an alarm clock in a tin bucket to wake up in the
morning," says Lukas. Elliott, 39, has kept Smarty Jones ideally
positioned at every jump and timed his moves perfectly. In an age
when outlandish celebration is expected to accompany big wins,
his biggest outburst was waving his whip three strides past the
Derby wire. "Not that I'm not happy," Elliott says. "That's just
While many trainers and riders approach the Belmont pace as if it
were advanced science, Elliott has a plan of Forrest Gumpian
simplicity. "The thing that's good for me and the horse is, it's
a mile and a half, but it's only one time around the track," the
jockey says. "Horses are creatures of habit, and my horse is used
to going once around the track. He's thinking: Straightaway,
turn, straightaway, another turn, and then my jockey starts
really asking me to run. He's going to run the same race he
always runs, except the track is a little bigger." Plus, Elliott
has already guided Smarty Jones to a $5 million bonus, awarded by
Oaklawn Park's owner for winning the Rebel, the Arkansas Derby
and the Kentucky Derby. And, most significant, Elliott is sitting
on pure brilliance. "I've got such a good horse underneath me,"
he says, "that I can ask him to do just about anything at this
To which lovers of the sport would say only this: Ask him to win.
Twenty-six years is long enough.
Tim Layden's Viewpoint, every Friday at si.com.