NEW YORK — Smarty Jones arrived at Belmont race track Wednesday, escorted by a police guard and three helicopters from television stations. Race officials estimate that more money will be wagered at the 136th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday than on any race in history. A record crowd is a possibility as well, and why not? Smarty Jones is trying to become the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years. He is the 10th horse to try since 1978.
Smarty Jones is a horse with the kind of Cinderella story that reminds some of a horse who recently made it to the big screen, Seabiscuit. But like Seabiscuit, Smarty Jones is more than just a good story. He won the Preakness by 11 1/2 lengths, pulling away down the stretch in crushing fashion. Watching on television, I kept waiting for him to run hard, but it seemed at the end that he still had another gear. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who ran second in the Preakness on a formidable horse aptly named Rock Hard Ten, compared Smarty Jones to Secretariat. Others see it, too; the horse is receiving fan mail, just as Secretariat and Seabiscuit did before him. And like Seattle Slew before him, he enters the Belmont undefeated.
As yet I have no plans to write to Smarty Jones, but I’m still much more of a fan of horse racing than a student. I’m content with not understanding the concept of dosage, Beyer Speed Figures, and the intricacies of various tracks. I still haven’t gotten past the beauty and fragility of the animals, their uncanny ability to project individual personalities.
It is said, for example, that Secretariat had a sense of humor, that he would pull the groom’s rake out of his hands with his mouth and play keep away. Other horses, like several in the Man O’ War line, were known for belligerence. Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, described one of them as a “twelve hundred pound misanthrope.” One of the contenders at the Belmont this year, Eddington, is suffering from “a little case of A.D.D,” or so said his trainer Wednesday.
Then there are the jockeys. For the danger in which they labor and the harrowing dedication they bring to their craft, they are readily compared to boxers. Both sports, if sports they are, offer the potential for brilliance stalked by the presence of doom. Like fighters, the jockeys have lost some of their majesty under the confining gaze of television, but they still share with fighters an odd and tragic occupation. Smarty Jones’s jockey, Stewart Elliot, was the subject of numerous stories during Preakness week revealing his past struggles with weight, alcohol, and a court case for assault. In the peculiar gentility of the horse racing world, such news is still a mild scandal, whereas in boxing it wouldn’t make a column blurb.
Then there are the owners and trainers. As in boxing, they can be as memorable as their charges, though not always for the right reasons. Fortunately Smarty Jones’s owner, the elderly and ailing Ray Chapman, and his trainer, John Servis, round out the feel-good story.
I’ve only been watching horse racing since 1999, when Charismatic lost his try for the Triple Crown to Lemon Drop Kid. The best horse I’ve seen over these years was Point Given, who lost the Kentucky Derby in 2001 as the favorite but then went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont, the latter with a pulverizing performance similar to Smarty’s big win two weeks ago. They should have called him Point Taken. It still seems wrong that he did not win the Triple Crown. His failure to do so only underscores the supreme difficulty of achieving it.
The smallest mishap and you’re out of the winner’s circle. You might wake up with a safety pin in your hoof, as was rumored to have happened to Spectacular Bid in 1979. You might lose by a nose, like Silver Charm in 1998, get bumped out of the gate like War Emblem in 2002, lose in the slop as Funny Cide last year. There’s a reason why there have been only 11 Triple Crown winners in over 100 years.
The Triple Crown is starting to seem like the “green flash” that supposedly occurs just before the sun drops behind the horizon. I’ve been looking, but I haven’t seen it. Maybe Smarty Jones is the flash. A small incident after the Kentucky Derby gave me a feeling about him.
I had to miss the broadcast of the race this year, but later that evening, out with friends, remembered and asked someone, “Who won the Derby?”
At that, what seemed like half the drinkers at the bar whirled around on their stools and answered, “Smarty Jones!” in perfect unison. The name sounded like the chorus to a very happy song. Everyone broke up laughing as if we had all won something.
If Smarty Jones wins Saturday, songs are bound to follow.
Paul Beston is a writer in New York.
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