ELMONT, N.Y. - Like the Pied Piper, the little red colt emerged from Barn 5 and led us out onto the Belmont track. There was no mistaking what was happening between Smarty Jones and anyone paying attention to him.
This was the lightheaded moment of spectacular anticipation, which must explain why Triple Crown trainer Billy Turner (Seattle Slew) drove by Barn 5 at that exact moment and why Barclay Tagg, looking like Ichabod Crane, rode by on horseback.
Ghosts of Triple Crowns past.
Slew won. Funny Cide, trained by Tagg, lost. By sundown tonight, we'll know on which side of history Smarty Jones will forever rest.
This is what it feels like to get swept up in something bigger and better than so much of what else is going on in the world.
At least that's what the Little Sisters of the Poor said when they stopped by to wish "Godspeed" to Smarty Jones on the eve of his big event. "There is so much fear and tragedy right now that it's good for the whole United States. It sparks a little of a Cinderella story," said Sister Margaret Hogarty, one of five nuns from the Queen of Peace nursing home from nearby Queens Village.
"I'm from Philadelphia. Three of us are: Sister Bernice and Sister Patricia. We're having a Smarty party at the home. We won't bet that he wins the Triple Crown, but some of the old folks will," she said.
Nuns in starched white habits; beer-drinking assistant trainers with bags full of Red Man chew; road-weary country and western singers; school kids out on a field trip; coffee-deprived newspaper reporters; handsomely paid magazine photographers; eager New York Racing Association officials; excited Visa representatives; Dunkin' Donuts-bearing grooms ...
You name it, we were all there to bear witness to the cult of The Colt.
That left little doubt that entries like Rock Hard Ten, Purge, Royal Assault, Eddington and Master David are the unfortunate, forgotten members of this Belmont chorus, the one that bellows the name of one horse and one horse only: Smarty Jones.
It was 6:30 a.m. yesterday, well after sunup had dimmed the white glow of the colossal full moon, setting the early morning scene ablaze in glaring light.
It was time.
Time for one last gallop around the track.
Time for one last test load into the starting gate.
Time for Someday Farms trainer John Servis to let his superstar horse feel the tightness of the reins so the horse would know it was time for the hunger to start to burn; the countdown to post time was on.
"He's very strong. He kind of knows what's coming, so he's getting his game face on," Servis said, smiling the ebullient, eager, nervous smile of a horseman who's sure that his horse is fulfilling some kind of pre-ordained fate.
"There have been so many signs. Another one pops up every day; unbelievable signs that this feels like it was meant to be," he said.
And so no wonder the conga line for Smarty Jones started.
Fans, connections, reporters and photographers scooted after him, paying no attention to mounds of manure or the ruts that made for shoe-wrecking and dangerous footing.
In the middle of the scrum, zipping around on his motorized wheelchair, was Roy Chapman, the septuagenarian owner who never dreamed he would live to see all this. After selling almost all his horses, after figuring the emphysema was working him over good, all Chapman wanted was for Smarty Jones to run in the Arkansas Derby.
All the rest? This was all a gift; the Derby, the Preakness, and this shot at horse racing immortality.
There was Chapman yesterday, bumping along over puddles and potholes as if he were riding the lunar module, a man out to conquer the final frontier.
Characters kept coming in waves. Over by the barn, a wayward fellow by the name of Kenny Post was singing a new Belmont theme song. In cowboy boots, gray coveralls and a straw cowboy hat draped with a Willie Nelson bandanna, Post had just cut a CD in Nashville of a stirring tune called "Born To Run," which was not the same as the Bruce Springsteen classic, but an instant tribute to a thoroughbred that underdogs like Post identify with.
"They say the mark of greatness is worn by very few ...
"Born to run, headed straight to glory and fame ... "
Schmaltzy? A little, but the tune isn't bad. It's good enough for ABC and ESPN to be playing, Post said, assuring us it was all about supporting a horse he finds an inspiration and not a commercial exploitation.
Besides, none of the sideshow hoopla or Hollywood story lines or past tragedies associated with Smarty Jones' team could steal the spotlight from the star, from the horse, from him.
Yesterday morning, a flock of us followed Smarty Jones to the Belmont oval and stood on the edge of the dirt track. We watched Servis on his horse, Butterscotch, and exercise rider Peter Van Trump aboard Smarty Jones as they both tried to hold Smarty Jones back.
"I'm just glad today was Friday," Servis said, sensing he has no reason to wonder whether Smarty Jones is ready.
It was a glimpse at a champion primed to take his place in an awesome pantheon of champions.
"I'm telling you, he was putting us in some kind of agony today," Van Trump said, rubbing his hands where the reins on Smarty Jones had cut and blistered them.
Someone from the Smarty chorus asked Servis: What do you call a horse like this?
"Like my son calls him: a beast," Servis said.
How about Triple Crown champion? This little red colt gives you the big, distinct impression he wants to do it. It's quite a feeling.