NEW YORK Belmont, that ol' heartbreaker, did it again.
It swallowed up Smarty Jones just when it looked as if he had it beat, stopping yet another 3-year-old who had his sights set on winning the Triple Crown.
When Birdstone ran him down near the finish of Saturday's Belmont Stakes, a record crowd that was teased into believing it would at long last see racing history, left stunned, disappointed and in tears.
So popular was Smarty Jones that even the winning jockey, trainer and owner apologized.
''I'm very sorry, of course,'' said Edgar Prado, who was booed in the winner's circle after guiding Birdstone to a one-length victory, ''but I had to do my job, that's what I'm paid for.''
Nick Zito won his first Belmont after finishing second five times, yet he understood why fans were upset.
''It's sad because Smarty is great for racing,'' the popular New York-based trainer said. ''We've all become fans of Smarty Jones. He will still go down as one of the greats now.''
The little red chestnut was poised to become the 12th Triple Crown champion when he turned for home. Instead, he ended up as the 18th horse to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but fall short in the ''Test of the Champion.''
''We're starving for a Triple Crown winner and I think everybody thought that this was the one, including myself,'' Smarty Jones' trainer John Servis said. ''But that's .... what makes this game so great.''
The 1 1/2-mile Belmont has now thwarted three consecutive Triple tries, six in the past eight years and 10 since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner in 1978. It's now been a record 27 years since America celebrated its last Triple Crown champion, and many racing fans are wondering when they'll see one again.
Smarty Jones brought an 8-for-8 record into the longest and most grueling race of the series, and the Pennsylvania-bred was sent off as the 3 1/2-10 favorite. His loss was the biggest surprise with a Triple on the line since 1979, when Spectacular Bid appeared to be a lock but finished third at odds of 3-10 after getting caught up in an early speed duel.
''I think it's really disappointing he didn't win,'' Bid's trainer Bud Delp said, referring to Smarty Jones. ''But that's the history of the Belmont.''
Like Spectacular Bid, Smarty Jones may have moved too soon, too. Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott said Smarty had trouble relaxing. So Elliott guided him into the lead entering the backstretch with a mile remaining. Around the far turn, Smarty Jones led by nearly four lengths before Birdstone came flying past him in the stretch and left Smarty with his first loss in nine races.
''I had a little trouble getting him settled,'' said Elliott, who dropped to 1-for-17 at Belmont Park. ''I figured I could get into the backside and get a clear lead and then he'd relax. He just never got a break. In the end, the mile-and-a-half just got to him.''
Losing hurt, Servis said, ''but we had a really good run.''
''We're not going to put our head down. We're proud,'' he said.
Birdstone, who ran eighth behind Smarty Jones in the Derby, gave Prado his second huge upset in the Belmont. Two years ago, he spoiled War Emblem's Triple try by winning aboard 70-1 Sarava, for the biggest payoff in Belmont history $142.50.
Birdstone won at odds of 36-1, and returned $74, $14 and $8.60. Smarty Jones paid $3.30 and $2.60. Royal Assault, also trained by Zito, was third and paid $6.10.
He was followed by Eddington, Rock Hard Ten, Tap Dancer, Master David, Caiman and Purge.
Winning time for the race was 2:27.50, well off 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat's record of 2:24. Though gray skies threatened all day, there were only a few showers and the track was listed as fast at post time. The Belmont tripped up Funny Cide last year, when the gelding couldn't handle a wet track and was beaten by Empire Maker; two years ago, War Emblem stumbled at the start and finished eighth.
For Smarty Jones, instead of joining Seattle Slew as the only unbeaten Triple Crown winners, he will keep company with Majestic Prince, who also was undefeated until his loss in the 1969 Belmont.
Earlier in the week, Zito all but conceded the race and Triple Crown to Smarty Jones, saying he'd be happy with second place. He was much happier with the victory, while owner and socialite Marylou Whitney also apologized for denying Smarty Jones a place in history.
''I'm sorry, sorry, sorry Smarty Jones couldn't win,'' she said. ''We do love Smarty, and I think Smarty Jones has done more for the racing community and people who love horses. It gives everyone the chance to think, 'This could happen to me.'''
Her husband, John Hendrickson, added: ''We do feel horrible.''
With his fourth victory in seven starts, Birdstone earned $600,000 to boost his bankroll to $975,600. Smarty Jones' owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, failed to collect a $5 million Triple Crown bonus, but still came away with $200,000.
Smarty Jones remains fourth among leading money-earners in North America with $7,613,155.
''Being second in the Belmont ain't all bad,'' Pat Chapman said. ''The better horse won today. I am glad it's over.''
About 90 minutes before the race, it was announced to the crowd that President Reagan had died. His picture was flashed on the jumbo screen next to the tote board, the infield flag was lowered to half-staff and there was a moment of silence.
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