`Smarty's' second step even bigger

If colt can add Preakness to triumph in Derby, stage set for prime-time drama

May 15, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The focus shifts from horse to horse before the Kentucky Derby. Before the Preakness, it locks onto one.

The Derby winner arrives at Pimlico Race Course a celebrity. His task is clear: Win the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown, so he can move ahead to Belmont Park with a chance for immortality.

Five times in the past seven years, the Derby winner has stormed into Baltimore and snared the Preakness, only to lose the Belmont three weeks later. And racing is deprived of another Triple Crown winner. No horse since Affirmed in 1978 has swept the famed series.

Now comes Smarty Jones. He is undefeated after seven races, the first perfect Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977. Sports Illustrated splashed Smarty Jones on its cover, the first Derby winner to gain that distinction since Sunny's Halo in 1983.

John Servis, Smarty Jones' trainer, said that despite the allure of trying to make history, he would not bring the Philadelphia Park-based colt to the Preakness at anything less than 100 percent health and fitness. Yesterday, Servis said he believes the Triple Crown is within reach.

"This is the race," Servis said. "If we can get through this, then we're going to have a real good chance at it."

Smarty Jones' task may be easier today because of the defection yesterday of The Cliff's Edge, hobbled by a foot injury. Nick Zito, his trainer, said the bruise to the colt's right front foot had not improved. He had no choice but to scratch The Cliff's Edge.

"Sure, it's hard," said Zito, who has trained one Preakness and two Kentucky Derby winners. "You want to win your third Derby. You want to win your second Preakness. What can I do? Great expectations bring great disappointments."

The Cliff's Edge became Zito's third top 3-year-old to encounter injury or illness along the Triple Crown trail. Birdstone and Eurosilver were the others. That leaves lightly raced Sir Shackleton as Zito's lone hope to upset Smarty Jones.

"I'm in there, right?" Zito said. "Like Yogi says, `It ain't over 'til it's over.' "

Even without the formidable The Cliff's Edge, Smarty Jones faces his toughest task, Servis said. He outran 17 horses on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs two weeks ago to win the Kentucky Derby. Before that, he swept three races at Oaklawn Park, won one at Aqueduct and two at Philadelphia Park.

"This is the toughest race he's ever been in," Servis said. "He's very vulnerable coming back in two weeks. If he wasn't doing as well as he is, he wouldn't be here. The maturity process with him has been picture-perfect. You wonder when something's going to go wrong."

So far, everything has been flawless with Smarty Jones. And nothing beats winning except a winner with a captivating story. Servis, his trainer, and Stewart Elliott, his jockey, have risen from obscurity. Elliott has overcome alcoholism and a violent past.

Patricia and Roy Chapman, Smarty Jones' owners, attribute the colt's breeding to their former trainer and adviser, Bob Camac, who was murdered 10 months after Smarty Jones was born. Roy Chapman, 78, a former Philadelphia car dealer, struggles with emphysema.

The withdrawal of The Cliff's Edge leaves three Derby graduates to challenge Smarty Jones in the Preakness. Lion Heart will likely set the pace as he did in the Derby. He held on for second, but still finished 2 3/4 lengths behind Smarty Jones.

Patrick Biancone, trainer of Lion Heart, was asked how his horse can turn the tables on Smarty Jones. He said that, frankly, he didn't know whether he could.

Biancone hollered to Lion Heart, who was standing for his bath.

"How you going to do it?" Biancone said.

Lion Heart pricked his ears.

"Look, he's thinking," Biancone said.

Lion Heart never uttered a word.

Imperialism, third in the Derby, didn't speak, either, but his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, did. After finishing third in the Derby, Desormeaux said he could have won if he hadn't gotten trapped inside horses. Does he think he can win the Preakness?

"I certainly do," said Desormeaux, who rode regularly in Maryland in the 1980s. "I'm so excited about this race. I wish it was yesterday because I feel I have something left to prove."

Water Cannon, based at Bowie, carries the home team's hopes and a five-race win streak into the Preakness. And powerful newcomers Eddington and Rock Hard Ten finally get their chance in a Triple Crown race after being excluded from the Kentucky Derby because of a lack of earnings.

But the focus is Smarty Jones. Servis took him back to Philadelphia Park after the Derby and trained him, for the most part, out of the public eye. Servis did not breeze him (run him at near-race speed), something trainers usually do, and something Smarty Jones wanted to do. Instead, Servis limited the colt to gallops, his head bowed, his muscles taut.

Smarty Jones wanted to do more. As the days passed, he became more agitated. Servis said the colt was fit. He didn't need to train harder. And anyway, Servis said, he wants Smarty Jones frustrated; he wants him angry for the coming fray.

"I want him like he's going bear hunting with a Swiss [army knife]," Servis said.

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