Chasing the Triple Crown

A staggering total of 1,360,000 thoroughbred horses have come of age as 3-year-olds in that stretch. Of that number, only 11 managed to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but not one of them had what it took to sweep all three. I have been at Belmont Park for all these dances, and of all the pretenders who came up short, none evoked a final scene as stunning as the one that unfolded, in vivid color, following the defeat 10 years ago of Smarty Jones, the wildly popular colt who came to the 2004 Belmont, undefeated in eight starts, off smashing victories at Churchill Downs and Pimlico.

He was the people's horse, just plain folks. Everybody called him Smarty, or Jonesy, and loved him from his foretop to his fetlocks. He had one of those memorable handles, like Elvis or Ringo, that had a magic ring to it.

I was watching the post parade in the set of box seats owned by Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, when I glanced around and saw, standing right behind me in the box, Bill Murray, who should have won an Oscar that year for his work in "Lost in Translation." Murray had been discovered wandering the grounds alone, dressed by his favorite haberdasher at Goodwill, and Penny had invited him to join us in the Chenery box. A record crowd of 120,139 people, the largest ever to witness a sporting event in Gotham, had slipped into every crevice of racing's Taj Mahal, all come to witness the coronation of America's 12th Triple Crown winner. The track's enormous parking lots grew so crowded that, for the first time in Belmont's history, cars were being turned away.

Belmont Park was a barely moveable beast. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani strolled past, still viewed as a hero only three years after 9/11, waving to chants of "RuuuDEEE! RuuuDEEE!" Right behind Hizzoner came Nick Zito, the trainer of a 36-1 plodder named Birdstone. Zito lived in a heart divided. The New York trainer craved ardently to win his hometown's signature event -- he was 0-for-11 in the Belmont, with five seconds -- but he also wanted to see a Triple Crown winner, knowing what it would mean to racing after all these years, the longest drought in the history of the series.

Smarty was the son of a brilliant miler, Elusive Quality, out of a mare sired by a champion sprinter, Smile, and he looked like a horse who might get 12 furlongs on the strength of his unquestioned class, but only if his jock, Stewart Elliott, could get him to relax and keep him off the chain-saw of a rapid early pace. Elliott tried, to no avail. Grabbing the bit from the start, Jonesy ran the speedy Purge into defeat, chewed up Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, spitting them out as he pleased, and turned for home in front by almost four. He had killed his three main rivals and now it was time to stroll home and join the sport's immortals.

No, no, Nanette. The last 200 yards was agony in slo-mo.

You could hear Tom Durkin's voice above the thunderous din, the track announcer's words almost a plea: "The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It's been 26 years and just one furlong away! Can Smarty Jones hold on?"

Oh, no! There he was. Out of the trailing dust rose Zito's little bay. Durkin again, 70 yards from the wire: "And here comes Birdstone!"

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