NEW YORK Suddenly, Smarty Jones is being mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat and Seabiscuit.
Though they have little in common as far as on-track performance, all three have managed to do one thing the same way:
Arrive on the scene as delicious diversions just when America was desperate for good news to offset bad times.
Smarty comes along while the war in Iraq still rages and the nation sorts through the lingering effects of Sept. 11.
Secretariat took our minds off the Vietnam War, if only briefly, and the Watergate political scandal that brought down President Nixon.
Seabiscuit offered a bit of magic amid the heartbreak of the Depression.
Smarty Jones already has captured America's fancy with victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. One more win in Saturday's Belmont Stakes and he will forever be hailed as the smallish red chestnut who ended the longest drought between Triple Crown winners, 26 years.
The last longest stretch without a Triple winner was 25 years, and that ended when Big Red, as Secretariat was known, won the Belmont by an astonishing 31 lengths.
That was 31 years ago.
Like Secretariat, Smarty has graced the covers of national magazines. So far, he has won all eight of his races. One more and he will join Seattle Slew as the only undefeated Triple Crown champions.
One more and Smarty's horsey mien will be plastered in more places than Brad Pitt's face.
Smarty's trainer, John Servis, said his brilliant pupil is ''giving everybody something to grasp onto.''
''With everything in Iraq and Afghanistan and everything else going on, it's a bright light in the midst of a lot of dark stories,'' he said.
And so it was with Secretariat and Seabiscuit. By capturing the hearts of a nation at a time when folks hoped for something anything to cheer about, these champions provided a welcome respite.
''I am absolutely convinced that there's a relationship between the popularity of a horse and the period in which he comes along,'' said William Nack, author of ''Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.''
In 1973, Secretariat swept the Triple Crown with record times (the Preakness mark wasn't recorded due to a timing malfunction), while the Vietnam War was going badly and the Watergate hearings were under way.
''People would grimace at the front page and turn immediately to the sports section,'' Nack recalled. ''The horse absolutely consumed this country for six weeks.''
Seabiscuit never ran in a Triple Crown race, but his popularity was unmatched from 1936-40. He was most famous for winning a highly touted match race against Triple Crown winner War Admiral in 1938 at Pimlico.
He ''endured a remarkable run of bad fortune, conspiracy and injury to establish himself as one of history's greatest and most extraordinary athletes,'' Laura Hillenbrand wrote in her best-selling book, ''Seabiscuit: An American Legend.''
You could say the same about Smarty Jones.
''Smarty Jones may be the Seabiscuit of this century,'' Hillenbrand said during an interview on the television show ''Biography.'' ''Smarty Jones is the ultimate blue collar hero, and that's why the whole country is in love with him.''
Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, noted that Smarty Jones burst on the scene during a time of war and scandal much the way Big Red did.
''I think they're quite parallel,'' she said. ''It is a time when we want to feel good about something and you can't feel good about what's going on in our country. Smarty Jones is very appealing and easy to love, and so are his connections.
''I do think the time in which this is occurring makes him even more attractive, and I felt that way about Secretariat. The country needed him.''
As a racehorse, there is still much to prove before Smarty Jones can be compared to Secretariat. Yet there are similarities beyond their coloring and the blue and white silks of their owners.
Secretariat was regally bred at Meadow Stud, a son of Bold Ruler and the mare Somethingroyal. As a 2-year-old, he won Horse of the Year with seven wins in nine starts. He lost his debut and was disqualified to second after finishing first in the Champagne, but by year's end was syndicated for $6 million, a huge sum at the time.
At 3, he was a record-smasher. His winning Derby time still stands. His Preakness would have set a record, according to Daily Racing Form timers, and his breathtaking rout in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont was run in a world record 2:24.
A Pennsylvania-bred, Smarty Jones is a great, great grandson of Secretariat on his father's side. He ran only twice as a 2-year-old due to an injury that's a key element in a bio that reads like a made-for-TV story.
It all started just months after he was born at Roy and Pat Chapmans' Someday Farm in Chester County, Pa., the lush countryside outside Philadelphia.
First, original trainer Bob Camac and his wife were murdered at their farm in New Jersey, and the Chapmans nearly got out of the business altogether. They sold off most of their stock and kept only two horses one was Smarty Jones. He was sent to Florida to be broken for racing, and when he returned last year he was sent to Servis, a friend of Camac's.
Last July, misfortune struck again.
While schooling in the starting gate at Philadelphia Park, the colt suddenly reared and slammed his head on an unpadded iron bar.
''Oh my God, this horse killed himself,'' Servis recalled thinking.
He fractured his skull, shattered orbital bones and nearly lost his left eye. He was nursed back to health at the New Jersey Equine Clinic. To this day, one can still see the dents in his head.
But Smarty finally made it to the races, and hasn't stopped running.
His record 11 1/2-length win in the Preakness evoked memories of Secretariat's Belmont despite the slow winning time of 1:55.59. But it seems to have convinced just about everyone that he's a cinch to win Saturday.
Nack recalled Secretariat's Triple Crown as ''really an electrifying experience leading up to that Belmont.''
''It was clear to everybody we were not waiting for a Triple Crown winner, we were awaiting a coronation because he was working like the proverbial wind,'' he said.
It's the same feeling this week, with Servis confident his star is as strong now as he was before the Derby. Smarty Jones, call him Little Red, was favored in the Derby and Preakness and is the 2-5 morning-line choice for Saturday.
Servis, though, is not about to get caught up in comparisons.
''I don't know if there will ever be another Secretariat. There's nothing I'd love more than to have my horse be another Secretariat. My horse is improving all the time ... the possibility is certainly there.''
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