BALTIMORE Eight-for-eight and one to go!
And the way Smarty Jones ran away with the Preakness Stakes, there seems to be no stoppin' him now. Smarty blazed into the lead turning for home and won by a record 11 1/2 lengths on Saturday, setting the stage for a dramatic Triple Crown try at Belmont in three weeks. The undefeated colt has a chance to become just the 12th Triple Crown champion and the first to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont since Affirmed in 1978. He would also claim another $5 million bonus and become racing's richest horse.
The crowd at Pimlico roared as jockey Stewart Elliott asked Smarty for his patented run for home. As he moved to the inside of pacesetter Lion Heart around the far turn, Smarty Jones turned on the afterburners and clobbered nine rivals in running his record to 8-for-8. In doing all that, he added another amazing chapter to racing's feel-good story of the year. The margin of victory topped the record of 10 lengths by Survivor in 1873, in the first Preakness.
''He's just unbelievable. He just keeps getting better, this son of a gun,'' Elliott said. ''I mean, he just did it so easy.''
While Lion Heart faded in the stretch and finished fourth, Rock Hard Ten was second, with Eddington third. Imperialism was fifth, followed by Sir Shackleton, Borrego, Little Matth Man, Song of the Sword and Water Cannon.
Winning time for the 1 3-16th-mile race was 1:55.59, well off the record of 1:53.40 held by Louis Quatorze (1996) and Tank's Prospect (1985).
The overpowering win put in place some mind-boggling possibilities for the chestnut colt who has captured America's fancy as Funny Cide did last year before his Triple Crown bid fell short in the Belmont. Smarty Jones will be the sixth horse in the last eight years with a Triple chance, but there's a big difference this time around: Smarty is the only one who hasn't lost.
''He came through for America. I'm so impressed with his effort,'' trainer John Servis said. ''I knew he had to bring his best game. I knew this was the toughest race he was going to be in in a long time. And he brought it. He brought it big time.''
A win in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont and Smarty Jones would join Seattle Slew as the only horses to win the Triple Crown with an unbeaten record. Smarty, like Slew in 1977, would be 9-for-9.
The son of Elusive Quality would also surpass Cigar as the richest racehorse in North America. Smarty would earn a $5 million bonus from Visa with a Triple Crown sweep. Add his purse money, plus the $5 million bonus he already earned from Oaklawn Park for winning the Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby, and Smarty's total would top $13 million. Cigar earned $9,999,815.
Sent off as the 3-5 favorite, Smarty Jones made a mockery of the field. He seemed to dawdle behind Lion Heart around the first turn and along the backstretch. In a race that was almost identical to the one at Churchill Downs two weeks ago, Elliott decided when it was time to reel in Lion Heart. He moved a little earlier this time as Lion Heart raced wide, and the crowd began cheering in anticipation.
''I got goosebumps myself,'' Servis said. ''I'm really, really happy with it.''
Smarty Jones, in adding another $650,00 to the bankroll of owners Pat and Roy Chapman, returned $3.40, $3 and $2.60. Rock Hard Ten, ridden by Gary Stevens, returned $5 and $4. Eddington, with Jerry Bailey aboard, paid $5.20.
''I had another gear left. Unfortunately, when I hit the other gear, Smarty Jones hit about four more gears,'' Stevens said, ''I'm just basically running for second. Smarty Jones looks like he's just getting warmed up right here at the finish.''
Smarty became racing's best story even before the Derby because of his soap-opera history: He nearly died when he slammed his head on an iron bar; his trainer and jockey are based at small-time Philadelphia Park; and the Chapmans once refused a blank check to sell him.
Since the Derby, it's been one Smarty party after another. The horse got a hero's welcome when he returned to Philly Park, where about 5,000 fans showed up to watch him jog around the track.
A record crowd of 112,668 watched him win at Pimlico, topping the previous mark of 104,454 in 2001.
Perhaps no one is enjoying the party more than the Chapmans. Roy, who turned 78 three days after the Derby, uses a wheelchair and needs an oxygen supply tank to help with his emphysema.
Smarty's success, he says, has energized him.
And now it's on to the Belmont on June 5, where New York Racing Association officials are expecting ''the biggest day in New York racing history,'' NYRA senior vice president Bill Nader said.
Servis says Smarty will be there ''as long as he tells us he's ready.''
The largest crowd for a Belmont was 103,222 in 2002, when Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem stumbled at the start and finished eighth.
Among the challengers Smarty could face are Derby starters Birdstone, Friends Lake, Master David, Read the Footnotes and Tapit. Other possible starters include Mustanfar, Relaxed Gesture, Sinister G and Royal Assault, who won the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard.
''He'll do whatever I want him to do,'' Elliott said, referring to the Belmont's demanding distance. ''It won't be a problem.''
The jockey has handled his newfound fame well, but he's also encountered the downside of being in the spotlight.
The 39-year-old rider admitted on Friday that he battled alcoholism several years ago. The revelation came after Kentucky racing officials fined Stewart $1,000 for failing to disclose on his Derby application that he pleaded guilty in 2001 to an assault charge. That same year, the jockey also pleaded guilty to charges of assault and criminal mischief involving a former girlfriend.
''I just think about the past and think about where I was,'' he said. ''Now, the future, look where I am.''
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