Four years later, John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones, is still attached to that chestnut colt and those fleeting weeks when Smarty was anointed racing's next star. Servis, who collects Smarty memorabilia and visits the retired horse each year, knows better than anyone that the risk of aspiring to greatness is that you might fall tantalizingly short.
Because Triple Crown races are for 3-year-olds only, a horse can enter just once. But their trainers relive the races a thousand times.
In 2004, Smarty Jones won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but faded at the Belmont, losing to a 36-1 long shot. Servis says he'll be watching the Belmont on television Saturday and believes Big Brown, if healthy, will achieve what Smarty could not.
Like Smarty Jones - who nearly lost an eye in 2003 after rearing in the starting gate and smacking his head - Servis is feisty and competitive. The trainer, 49, still becomes animated when discussing how and why he believes Smarty finished second in the Belmont.
Servis says other riders, including Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who rode Eddington, pressed Smarty early, denying him an easy stride. Servis says he told Bailey in a phone conversation a week after the race that he had never seen the jockey use his whip so early.
" 'I'm sorry you feel that way,' " Servis says he recalls Bailey saying. Bailey says he doesn't remember the conversation.
Servis says he wonders whether Bailey was trying to win or simply trying to unsettle Smarty. Eddington finished fourth, and Smarty, tired at the end, was passed by victorious long shot Birdstone.
"I guess unethical is not the right word," Servis says. "Do I blame Jerry Bailey for losing the Triple Crown? No. Did he have something to do with it? Yes."
Bailey says he recently reviewed the race to prepare for his role as a television analyst during this year's Belmont.
"Smarty Jones moved on his own or at the encouragement of Stewart [Elliott, his jockey] - that's what got him beat," Bailey says. "Granted, if no one challenges him, he would have had an easier time of it. Even though he was challenged by Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, he still had it within his discretion and power to wait longer before he made his move."
Servis says he doesn't believe Big Brown will fall into the same trap. He predicts the horse will win if healthy, saving trainer Rick Dutrow from a lifetime of what-ifs.
"Big Brown settles real good," Servis says. "My horse didn't. When you tried to pull Smarty back, he grabbed that bit and went some more. The only thing that'll keep Big Brown from winning the Triple Crown is his feet."
Big Brown has a crack on his left front hoof that Dutrow says won't keep him from running.
On Saturday, Servis will be thinking back to 2004 - to the crowds of Philadelphians that lined up to watch Smarty train and to the circumstances of the horse's stunning Belmont defeat.
"I still do replay it [the Belmont] in my mind, especially this time of year," he says. "Spring is for reminiscing."
Servis has preserved some of the best moments from Smarty's rides. His contemporary home, on a quiet cul-de-sac a few miles from Philadelphia Park, where Smarty was once stabled, is loaded with Smarty artifacts.
In his study is a red rose - treated and encased in glass so as not to wilt - taken from the blanket of roses presented to Smarty in the Kentucky Derby winner's circle. Servis also has a brick from the old Churchill Downs, the recently renovated Derby site. He has Smarty's Derby blanket and saddle towel.
On the walls leading into the basement hang Smarty's bridle and harness and dozens of framed photographs. There's a shot of Smarty nuzzling Butterscotch, a stable pony. There's Smarty getting a sponge bath.
Servis pauses to point out a mock-up of a Time magazine cover of Smarty that the editors planned to run if the horse won the Triple Crown. The photo reminds him - in a way that is both exhilarating and painful - of just how close Smarty came. "This is what it would have looked like," Servis says.
Smarty's loss was a blow to an industry thirsting for a Triple Crown winner and to Philadelphia, which had adopted the horse as a four-legged Rocky Balboa. Schoolchildren had lined up to watch Smarty train and leave him carrots. The Philadelphia City Council hoped to hold a parade down Broad Street if Smarty won. Many Philadelphians rooted for the Chapmans, Smarty's owners, because their longtime trainer, Bob Camac, was killed by his stepson in 2001.
A jockey's son from Charles Town, W.Va., Servis was too grounded to allow Smarty's loss to color the rest of his career. Married with two sons, he trains dozens of horses at Philadelphia Park.
Servis, who often wears an oversized, diamond-and-gold ring he commissioned with "Smarty Jones 2004" engraved on it, says he visits Smarty each year when he's in Kentucky on business. Suffering from sore ankles, the horse was retired for breeding in 2004.
Servis says Smarty was grazing with his head down when he approached a few years ago.
"I yelled to him and he started galloping toward me, and for the next 10 minutes he was rearing and bucking and playing. He was just showing off."