Sure, Smarty Jones entered the Kentucky Derby unbeaten. But questions persisted about the quality of the horses he'd beaten.
Sure, Smarty Jones overpowered the 18-horse Derby field with a driving, 2 3/4 -length victory. But doubters wondered how much the sloppy track had helped him and hurt his opposition.Yesterday, on a sweltering afternoon at Pimlico Race Course, on a dry track before a record crowd of 112,668, Smarty Jones provided the answers and silenced the doubters. In what was supposed to be his sternest challenge, the undefeated Pennsylvania-bred delivered his most convincing victory, an 11 1/2 -length romp in the 129th Preakness that set a record for domination.
Smarty Jones' margin of victory was the largest in Preakness history. His electrifying performance not only sent him to Belmont Park with two-thirds of the Triple Crown, but also drew lavish praise from a Hall of Fame jockey.
Gary Stevens, jockey of runner-up Rock Hard Ten, said this about Smarty Jones: "That horse is as good as any horse I've ever seen, and I've seen some good ones. `Smarty' really reminded me of Secretariat the way he pulled away."
Smarty Jones, the onetime underdog from Philadelphia Park, came into the Preakness undefeated after seven races. In record wagering, bettors made him the 3-5 favorite, perhaps largely on sentiment. His story and that of his owners, trainer and jockey had captivated the nation.
But Smarty Jones proved in the Preakness that he's more than a good story. He broke sharply into the lead and could have easily led the 10-horse parade into the first turn. But his jockey, Stewart Elliott, throttled him down, allowing Lion Heart to slip past on the inside.
Lion Heart drifted wide around the turn, forcing Smarty Jones even wider. But Smarty Jones and Elliott never wavered. They followed Lion Heart down the backstretch, just as they had in the Kentucky Derby.
Elliott waited to see whether Lion Heart would drift out again around the final turn. He did, and Elliott steered Smarty Jones to the inside. That's all the undersized colt needed. With a path cleared in front of him, he accelerated, and by the time he turned for home, he had secured the lead.
Elliott tapped him with his whip three times, and Smarty Jones pulled away on his own. He charged for the wire a horse alone in pursuit of history.
Rock Hard Ten rallied powerfully from seventh, but he never saw anything of Smarty Jones except his flicking tail. Rock Hard Ten finished second, two lengths ahead of Eddington. Lion Heart, the pacesetter, settled for fourth.
Elliott said that he was never worried, but that he was concerned when Lion Heart forced Smarty Jones wide around the initial turn.
"I just wanted to have clear sailing for this horse," Elliott said. "I figured as long as we didn't get in a jackpot, we'd be fine."
His concern down the backstretch was having to go wide again.
"I didn't want to have the rail left open, me getting carried out and them having clear sailing on the inside," Elliott said. "My horse was running so easy, so I took him to the inside, and he did the rest."
Trainer John Servis had been concerned about running Smarty Jones in the Preakness after the short, two-week break after the Derby. He allowed Smarty Jones merely to gallop in that period, usually under restraint alongside a pony. By yesterday, Smarty Jones was ready to explode.
"I was obviously concerned going into the race," Servis said. "He was a little vulnerable. I knew he had to come with his game."
Roy Chapman, Smarty Jones' owner, took the story from there. Said Chapman: "I thought he might win, but I never thought he would blow them away like he blew them away."
Chapman, 78, arrived in the winner's circle in a golf cart, his wheelchair folded up in back. The former car dealer from Philadelphia has emphysema and breathes with the aid of a tube attached to an oxygen tank.
He and his wife, Patricia, 62, received a $5 million check last week - a bonus from Oaklawn Park in Arkansas for sweeping two stakes at Oaklawn and the Kentucky Derby. The Chapmans would collect another $5 million from Visa if Smarty Jones wins the Triple Crown.
Already, Smarty Jones' $7,413,155 bankroll ranks fourth among thoroughbreds who have raced in North America. Only Cigar, Skip Away and Fantastic Light rank higher. Smarty Jones would easily eclipse Cigar's $9,999,815 with a victory in the Belmont.
Servis said he'd take Smarty Jones back to Philadelphia Park and plan strategy for the Belmont on June 5. Smarty Jones is the sixth horse in the past eight years to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. The previous five lost the Belmont. No horse has swept the famed series since Affirmed in 1978.
One final question will await Smarty Jones. He won the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles. He won the Preakness at 1 3/16 miles. Can he win the Belmont at 1 1/2 miles?
Elliott was asked that question. He didn't hesitate with his answer.
"He handled this race so easily," Elliott said. "He galloped out strong. He wasn't even blowing hard after the race. The mile and a half, I think he'll do whatever I want him to. I don't think that will be a problem."
Again, Chapman took over the story. "Once in a lifetime," he said, "do you get a horse like this."