Sorry About That Even the winning trainer apologized after a late charge by Birdstone at the Belmont brought the Triple Crown bid of America's darling, Smarty Jones, to a shocking end

June 13, 2004

The frail man in the wheelchair knew that this would be a horse
race, not just a coronation. A record crowd of 120,139 had
flooded into Belmont Park last Saturday expecting to witness
history and had made Smarty Jones a 1-5 favorite to take the
Belmont Stakes and become the first Triple Crown winner since
Affirmed in 1978. But Roy (Chappie) Chapman, the septuagenarian
owner who suffers from emphysema but whose crusty humor had been
one of the myriad heartwarming Smarty Jones plotlines during the
past month and a half, did not share the fans' presumption.

"Confident?" Chappie said to a visitor in his handicapped-
accessible box above the Belmont finish line just 90 minutes
before post time. "Not in this race. No way." He gestured with
his left arm toward the quarter pole, impossibly far off. "Look
at that homestretch," he said. "Look at it!" Then Chappie
crossed the fingers on both of his gnarled hands and held them
in the air, entrusting Smarty to the racing gods.

The racing gods are not to be trusted. For the sixth time in
eight years a horse had gone to Belmont Park with a chance to end
the long Triple Crown drought, and for the sixth time the horse
came up short. Smarty Jones weakened in the final 100 yards of
the 1 1/2-mile race, paying the price not only for a crackling
middle half mile but also for the wearying six-month journey from
Philadelphia Park to Arkansas to Louisville to Baltimore to New
York--and also, perhaps, for the enormous expectations. He had
won all eight of his races, but 36-1 shot Birdstone caught him
deep in the stretch on Saturday, and when the race was finished,
the first words that winning trainer Nick Zito spoke to John
Servis, his counterpart in the Smarty Jones camp, were, "I'm
sorry, man."

Smarty Jones was the biggest star in recent racing history. He
pushed the Triple Crown's television ratings to their highest
levels in more than a decade and would send the Belmont's to
their highest since Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977.
More than $500,000 in licensed Smarty Jones merchandise was sold
in the three weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont.
Seabiscuit (the book and movie) and Funny Cide (the horse with
Everyman owners who won the Derby and the Preakness last year)
had reawakened the public to horse racing, and Smarty Jones
surged across demographic boundaries with a series of implausible
stories--not just the ailing owner but also the hard-luck jockey,
the journeyman trainer and the colt's ghastly starting-gate
accident last summer. On Saturday fans chanted his name, papered
the paddock railings with posters and bought thousands of $2 win
tickets as keepsakes.

If racing purists had resisted proclaiming some recent
Derby-and-Preakness-winning horses--such as Charismatic (1999)
and War Emblem (2002)--worthy of becoming the 12th Triple Crown
winner, they rushed to support Smarty's campaign. "I'm a Smarty
Jones fan," said Shug McGaughey, who trained 1989 Belmont winner
Easy Goer. Two days before the Belmont, respected veteran trainer
Elliott Walden brought his 11-year-old son, Mack, to Smarty's
barn just to see the horse up close. The colt was housed in Barn
5, the one in which Secretariat lived in '73, and just before the
race Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat during his historic run
to the Triple Crown, visited Chappie and his wife, Pat, in their
box. "We talked about Big Red and Little Red, and she wished us
luck," says Pat. "It was an incredible moment."

Even as Smarty Jones arrived in New York, negotiations were under
way to syndicate his breeding rights to any of a half-dozen
Kentucky breeding farms for a price that was expected to approach
$40 million (and will now be somewhat less). Yet as race day
approached, Servis saw at least one ominous sign. As he leaned on
a white fence outside his barn last Thursday, the trainer said he
had seen "some very slight physical signs" that his 1,060-pound
chestnut was feeling the effects of the Triple Crown grind.
"Mentally he's sharp. Soundness-wise, no problems. But I've
noticed, in the mornings it takes him longer to warm up. Usually
an eighth of a mile or less, he's hitting on all cylinders. Now
it's a half mile or more."

Servis had spent almost three weeks trying to take the aggressive
edge off Smarty Jones to prepare him for the added distance of
the Belmont. "When he came out of the Preakness, I was tickled to
death, until the day afterward," Servis said after the Belmont.
"Then I thought, Oh, s---, he's so damn sharp, now what am I
going to do? The last thing you want in a mile-and-a-half race is
a horse that's too sharp." So Smarty went on long daily gallops
under 170-pound exercise rider Pete Van Trump while Servis,
riding alongside on 23-year-old stable pony Butterscotch, held
the colt's reins, strained by the effort of holding him back. The
purpose of the gallops--and of Smarty's only workout, seven
leisurely furlongs under jockey Stewart Elliott eight days before
the Belmont--was to dull his desire to use his natural speed.
"Obviously it didn't work," said Servis. "But I don't know what I
could have done differently. That's why the Triple Crown is so
tough."

In the Belmont, Smarty broke cleanly from the outside post and
took the lead before yielding to Purge in the first turn. Smarty
overtook Purge as the nine-horse field approached the long
backstretch, but he was immediately pressed by Eddington, then
Preakness runner-up Rock Hard Ten. To repel the three early
challengers, Smarty followed an opening half mile of 48.65
seconds with a dangerously fast second half mile of 46.79. "He
never relaxed," said Elliott. History hasn't been kind to jockeys
who moved too quickly in the Belmont, and Servis had said earlier
in the week, "This is going to be the biggest race of Stewart
Elliott's life. This is a race he can win or lose."

When it was over, though, Servis put no blame on the jockey.
"Stewy rode a great race," he said. Near the end Elliott lashed
Smarty on the right flank and then the left, but the horse was
finished, and Birdstone, with Edgar Prado aboard, bested him
easily. "He just bottomed out the last 100 yards," said Jerry
Bailey, who finished fourth on Eddington.

"Smarty Jones ran a huge race," said Jason Orman, trainer of Rock
Hard Ten, who faded to fifth. "He had to fight off those horses
early and then just barely got beat at the finish."

There was an eerie symmetry to Birdstone's win, Zito's first in
the Belmont after five runner-up showings. In the late winter,
when Smarty Jones was blossoming at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas,
beneath the radar, Zito had three genuine Derby contenders:
Birdstone, Eurosilver and The Cliff's Edge. The vagaries of
racing trimmed that roster: Eurosilver contracted an infection in
his neck and was removed from the Derby trail in early April. The
Cliff's Edge won the Blue Grass on April 10 and was among the
favorites in the Derby, but he ran a disappointing fifth and
missed the Preakness and the Belmont with a lingering hoof
injury. That left only Birdstone, who is owned by philanthropist
and socialite Marylou Whitney, widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt
(Sonny) Whitney, one of the most revered figures in old school
thoroughbred racing.

Sonny had dispersed nearly his entire farm before his death in
1992. Marylou and her second husband, John Hendrickson, purchased
female descendants of many of the Whitney broodmares, including
Dear Birdie, Birdstone's dam. Last October the tiny colt--"We
call him Little Man, because he hasn't grown," says Zito--won the
Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont. After winning an allowance
in February, however, Birdstone finished a dull fifth in the
March 20 Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park and ran a
nonthreatening eighth in the Derby.

There seemed to be little reason for Zito to enter Birdstone in
the Belmont. Yet the trainer had seen something during a month of
workouts on the Oklahoma training track at Saratoga, favored by
horsemen for its safe but demanding surface. "He just kept going
on that deep Oklahoma track," Zito says of Birdstone.
"Unbelievable."

He just kept going in the Belmont, too, sucking the fight from
Smarty Jones in just a few decisive jumps inside the 16th pole.
As Birdstone moved into the lead, the crowd's ear-splitting roar
suddenly gave way to a near silence. When Whitney headed for the
winner's circle, Hendrickson told her, "We're going to get
booed." Yet there was little of that--instead, just a stunned
buzz.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES PASSING LANE Birdstone (4) overtook Smarty Jones in the stretch, foiling a Triple Crown for the sixth time in eight years. COLOR PHOTO: SUZY ALLMAN (TOP) STUNNED Fans at Philadelphia Park couldn't believe Smarty lost, while Prado (below, left) consoled Elliott after the race. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL FRAKES [See caption above]

As race day approached, Smarty's trainer saw at least one ominous
sign.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)