Stevens' long trip ends with goose bumps

Rider of 2nd-place `Rock' says seeing `Smarty' run worth flight from France

Preakness Stakes

May 16, 2004|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

Gary Stevens went to a lot of trouble to ride in the Preakness yesterday, flying in from France just to take the mount on Rock Hard Ten.

He obviously thought something special might happen, and it did, but Stevens could only watch as Smarty Jones pulled away in the stretch at Pimlico Race Course to win by almost a dozen lengths.

Stevens, a two-time Preakness winner, finished second on Rock Hard Ten and said that made his trip worthwhile.

But what really made his day, he said, was the chance to see Smarty Jones in action.

"That was an unbelievable performance, as good as I have ever seen. I got goose bumps watching him make that move," Stevens said.

The 41-year-old jockey, who had a major role in last year's Seabiscuit movie, said he believes "Smarty" is on the verge of becoming racing's first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

"He won't get beat" in the Belmont Stakes, Stevens said. "The only way he gets beat is if he beats himself. What I saw today reminded me of Secretariat."

Rock Hard Ten had only three races before yesterday, making him the least-experienced horse in the field. Trained by Jason Orman, the colt won a maiden race and an allowance at Santa Anita Park earlier this year and ran well in the Santa Anita Derby in early April - he finished second and was placed third after a bumping incident.

Stevens, a Californian long established as one of America's top jockeys, had the mount in the colt's two wins, but missed the Santa Anita Derby. He went to France earlier this year to ride for trainer Andre Fabre and has made sporadic trips back home for certain mounts.

Rock Hard Ten didn't compete in the Kentucky Derby because of a lack of earnings, and Stevens passed on the race. But both made it here for the Preakness.

"This is a good young horse with a ton of potential," Stevens said.

The colt's inexperience showed before the race when he resisted attempts to load him into the starting gate, holding up the start for several minutes.

"He just didn't want to go in," Stevens said.

Once the gate opened, Stevens kept the horse well wide of the rail and behind Smarty Jones.

"I had a great trip. I was a little wide, but I had Smarty Jones in my sights," Stevens said. "Then I made a great sweeping move and I thought I was in good shape."

But just as Rock Hard Ten accelerated in an attempt to catch Smarty Jones, the winner blew him and the rest of the field away.

"I asked my horse for a move and he gave me one. But Smarty Jones had another gear, and then he had about four more gears," Stevens said. "I was five lengths behind and then I was about 15 lengths behind.

"My horse ran fine. But we were absolutely no match for the winner."

Rock Hard Ten finished 11 1/2 lengths behind the winner and two lengths ahead of Eddington, the Jerry Bailey-ridden colt who finished third.

"Jerry and I are on good horses, but it could be that we picked the wrong year to try to take on Smarty Jones," Stevens said.

Stevens was in a jacket and tie a half-hour after the race. His overnight flight back to Paris left from Dulles Airport last night at 10 p.m.

Stevens' plan was to head straight to Longchamps, the premier track in France, after landing this morning.

"I'm riding there Sunday. Three major races," he said with a smile. "But I'm glad I was here."

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