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Party hearty, Smarty

SHORTLY BEFORE last month's Preakness, as the media circus spun in three rings around him, Smarty Jones stood in his Pimlico stall casually munching from hay nets, alternately unfazed and mildly amused.

His cool demeanor may have had something to do with his front feet being in buckets of ice water. It held, though, through a four-hour nap Preakness morning, after which he trotted out and blew away the field by a record 11 1/2 lengths.

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If anything, horse racing's latest darling is approaching tomorrow's Belmont Stakes with an even more confident air. He's the 2-5 favorite to win and thus become the first horse in 26 years to claim racing's Triple Crown. Undefeated in eight starts at five tracks in all kinds of weather, Smarty Jones doesn't appear to have a serious rival.

In fact, his advance press out of New York is almost too good. The tough little horse from Philly, who rebounded from a fractured skull and a variety of other setbacks, is being mentioned with the greats of his sport - equine versions of athletes at the level of Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

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Once again, for the sixth time in eight years, the racing industry has its collective hopes up for a champion who can ignite new passion for an ancient pastime. Whatever happens tomorrow, Smarty has already contributed mightily.

Building on the momentum created by last year's Seabiscuit revival and the Triple Crown bid of come-from-behinder Funny Cide, Smarty Jones and his star-crossed entourage of owners, breeder, trainer and jockey are galloping their way into the American mainstream.

Television ratings for the May 1 Kentucky Derby were up 16 percent over last year, beating out both Masters golf and NASCAR, according to the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. The Preakness attracted a record crowd of 112,000; another record turnout is expected for the Belmont. Television coverage scheduled on networks and cable of racing events through the summer and fall, leading to the Breeder's Cup Classic, is the most extensive ever.

Meanwhile, money from Smarty Jones merchandise - T-shirts, caps, photos, computer wallpaper - is pouring in. The racing association, which directs its share of a Smarty franchising deal to industry-related charities, has already collected $500,000 and can't fill orders fast enough.

If Smarty Jones wins tomorrow and continues to race, his potential to attract new fans grows exponentially. But the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont has often been a heartbreaker.

"Someday, somewhere he's going to get beat," Roy Chapman, Smarty's owner, acknowledged after the Preakness. The horse has already proved, though, that a healthy market for his sport exists if the industry is smart(y) enough to go after it.


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