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Keeping 'Smarty' in line one man's ride of lifetime

ELMONT, N.Y. — ELMONT, N.Y. - A Kentucky Derby victory, a romp in the Preakness - it's all set up for Smarty Jones now.

Even if it's not, it's all set up for the assistant trainer who'll spend these last few nights sleeping in a stall next to the undefeated colt upon whom we've pinned the dream of the Triple Crown.

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Smarty Jones' assistant trainer, Bill Foster, stood outside Barn 5 yesterday and watched as Belmont Park workmen carried in a big fan, a TV and a refrigerator.

"That's for the beer, the one with the Clydesdales on it," said Foster, his gentle body language belying his loping, 6-foot-5 frame.

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"It's got to be a beer with horses on the label," he said, smiling the smile of a man whose nights include a cigar and pillow talk with the currently most celebrated horse in the world.

In a cast of thousands, with just as many subplots, the Smarty Jones saga is incomplete without mention of the 64-year-old barn foreman who can laugh off a few poor choices in love (with women) thanks to a special bond with a beloved colt on the verge of something special.

As caretaker to the main attraction in Saturday's Belmont, Foster is responsible for getting Smarty Jones through the week without incident. So far, so good.

"Most of the hard work is done. Now, it's just up to me to baby-sit him, put him on ice, worry about him," Foster said.

Holding court yesterday, he told how the morning trip from Philadelphia Park to Belmont had gone.

With the undefeated colt safely installed in the back of the van, Foster climbed into the passenger seat and looked at his watch. It was 9:26 a.m. Smarty Jones was off - headed for the homestretch of this ride of a lifetime.

"There was a sign outside of Philadelphia Park. It said, 'Look Out, New York. Smarty's Coming.' Well, he's here, now," Foster said.

"It was super. Police escort all the way. It gave you goose bumps, to be honest with you. You could see people lined up along the road, coming out of their places, busloads of kids and old ladies off to play slots. It was amazing. People waving and hollering. I'm 64 and I've never seen anything like it."

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Welcome to the tabernacle of Smarty Jones. Triple Crown prayers have gone unanswered nine times since Affirmed last did it, but this time, it feels different.

Maybe it's the eight wins in eight starts for Smarty Jones. Maybe it's the classy, confident calm surrounding the chestnut colt.

"This horse has taken the country by storm, with good reason. Everybody likes a horse like this. If he runs his race, I think he'll win. I just hope and pray the next three days we're status quo. If it is, I think you'll see quite a performance," Foster said.

"This horse is the exception. He's won eight different races at eight different distances. This guy never runs a dud. [Trainer] John [Servis] said [Smarty] would run on broken glass if he had to. Everyone in horse racing would want to be in this position."

Smarty Jones isn't the only great athlete in the world whose road to glory was better told by the teammate or roommate who more clearly sees the amazing journey as it unfolds, but Smarty Jones may be one of the luckiest.

With 35 years in the horse training business, Foster has the perspective and the life experience that a frisky, fresh-legged 3-year-old colt just doesn't.

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"Let's put it this way: We have an understanding. If he doesn't do enough work, he's a handful. If he's teased, he's a handful. He'll try and bite your face. But we do the same thing every time [before a Triple Crown race]. We're very laid-back, a very low-key operation. Animals have a sixth sense, and they sense nervousness or tension," Foster said.

After occupational stints that included being a corrections officer, a car re-possessor and a drill-press operator, Foster said there's no work as good as working with horses - especially when it allows him to share a barn with an undefeated champion like Smarty Jones.

"When I was a corrections officer at a prerelease center outside of Pittsburgh, I got to monitor the guy who rigged the Pennsylvania state lottery. For six months, he professed his innocence. I just smiled," Foster said.

"This [job handling Smarty Jones] is the ride of a lifetime," Foster said.

By the look on Foster's face, it was hard to know what might be sweeter, winning the Triple Crown or the adoration shown a star horse in the days leading up to that opportunity.

Certainly, the anticipation seemed to allow Foster and so many of Smarty Jones' connections to exude the rare aura of something special going down.

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Whether he wins or not, the anticipation is what makes this Belmont week as titillating as any in sport.

We wondered if Tiger Woods would win the Grand Slam of golf or if Serena Williams would win the Grand Slam of tennis.

We wonder if Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron's home run record or if Lance Armstrong will win a sixth Tour de France.

In this sweet season, Smarty Jones's current quest resides in that litany. It's a wonder, then, that he can sleep.

"But he does. He laid down for four hours before the Preakness," Foster said.

Foster, too, says he'll sleep, despite the high stakes.

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"That's what the Budweiser's for," he said.

Normality and routine for an honored man and a special horse in a time that's anything but normal.


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