'Smarty' proving to be a real gem

Preakness dominance creates awe, expectations in Triple Crown quest

May 17, 2004|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

John Servis was feeling the pressure. It was the week of the Arkansas Derby, and this was the race that would tell whether Smarty Jones, his trainee, was good enough for the Kentucky Derby.

Then the phone rang. It was a friend from Philadelphia Park, a jockey's agent. The friend said he'd had a dream the night before, and he'd been cheering for Smarty Jones in a race.

In the dream, a man next to him kept bumping him, cheering for Smarty Jones, too. He finally looked at the man, and it was Jack Servis, John Servis' late uncle. Uncle Jack, as John Servis calls him, also was a jockey's agent at Philadelphia Park. Servis said he was his mentor and dear friend. He died last year.

Servis said as soon as he received that call, as soon as he knew Uncle Jack was rooting for Smarty Jones, even in a dream, the pressure drained from him. He knew everything was going to be all right.

Yesterday, at the stakes barn at Pimlico Race Course the morning after Smarty Jones' devastating victory in the Preakness, Servis said it almost seems as if the road for Smarty Jones is preordained. Little things like that have been happening all along the way, he said.

In the Pimlico dining room before the Preakness, he said, a man he did not know showed him a program from the 1934 Kentucky Derby. Servis opened it, and one of the Derby entrants was a horse named Quasimodo. Quasimodo was Smarty Jones' nickname at the New Jersey clinic where he was treated for severe head injuries last summer after a starting-gate accident.

"Little things like that," Servis said. "It's unbelievable."

For Smarty Jones, the road has been perfection. His 11 1/2 -length victory in the Preakness - the largest in Preakness history - was his eighth without a defeat. Everything has gone so well, Servis said, "I'm almost afraid to talk about it."

At 10:13 a.m. yesterday, Smarty Jones stepped into a horse van for the ride home to Philadelphia Park. Servis said he would initially prepare Smarty Jones there for the Belmont. Servis' assistant, Bill Foster, said Smarty Jones would probably transfer to Belmont Park a week and a half before the Belmont, which is June 5.

Smarty Jones will try to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978. Servis said three weeks is a long time, a lot can happen, but initial signs for a top performance by Smarty Jones were good.

"There was not one oat left in his feed tub this morning," Servis said. "It's incredible. I was shocked how he came out of the Derby. He's just as good if not better today."

Servis isn't the kind to brag about his horse, other than to say the obvious: "He's something special."

Those defeated were more verbose. Jason Orman, trainer of Rock Hard Ten, who finished second in the Preakness, said his horse, making only his fourth start, got a little tired.

"But that wasn't the difference," Orman said. "I have a good horse, but that was a great horse that beat us."

Patrick Biancone, trainer of Lion Heart, the Preakness pacesetter who finished fourth, said that after the Derby and Preakness he's tired of trying to knock out Smarty Jones.

"It's like Muhammad Ali. Oh, not again," Biancone said. "I'm going to take my horse home and prepare for another fight. Like I said after the Derby, I think my horse was born the wrong year.

"My horse, for the first time in his life, he quit. It was too much. If I could have, I would have thrown in the towel, too."

Marty Ciresa, trainer of Preakness eighth-place finisher Little Matth Man, said he could hardly believe what he'd seen.

"I got chills watching Smarty Jones," Ciresa said. "Here I have a horse in the race, and I'm watching Smarty Jones, saying, `I've never seen a horse that good.' "

The only Preakness horses in line to challenge Smarty Jones in the Belmont are Rock Hard Ten and Eddington. Song of the Sword emerged from the Preakness with some sort of illness that affected his breathing, said Jennifer Pedersen, his trainer.

Water Cannon, the Preakness runner from Bowie, seemed fine the morning after his last-place finish. And so did his connections.

"I think we all enjoyed our experience," said Linda Albert, his trainer.

She said Water Cannon, who entered the race after five straight wins in Maryland, got rattled by the record crowd. She said that might have hindered his performance, but mainly, she said, he just ran into better horses. She said Water Cannon might run next in the $75,000 Deputed Testamony Stakes for Maryland-breds at Pimlico on Belmont day.

"Back to reality," Albert said.

NOTE: Joe De Francis, president and CEO of the Maryland Jockey Club, said that Preakness day was "truly a phenomenal day. I hate to say it was the best Preakness ever. But I think it was the best Preakness ever. No matter what measuring stick you want to use, the day absolutely blew the doors off every other Preakness."

A record crowd of 112,668 attended the Preakness. A record $58,791,406 was bet on the Preakness, and a record $85,120,667 was bet Saturday on Pimlico's races. And Smarty Jones, said De Francis, "is the most exciting horse I've seen since Seattle Slew."

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