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The agony of defeat

Smarty Jones ran an exceptionally fast mile and a quarter in yesterday's Belmont Stakes - two minutes and one half second. But the race was a mile and a half, and the final quarter found him running on empty, allowing Birdstone to pass him in the final stages. What went wrong? Andrew Beyer argues that the problem lies in Smarty's genes -- he's a natural miler, and found the distance too far.

Elliott said after the race that, for the first time this spring, Smarty Jones wasn't relaxing in the early stages of the race. "I thought if I could get a clear lead, maybe he'd relax," the veteran rider said. "I was planning on getting away with an easy eighth or quarter [of a mile], but it didn't happen."

Servis saw it the same way, and manfully accepted the blame -- deflecting any potential criticism of his rider. "I worked really hard to take the edge off him, but it obviously didn't work. If he had settled, we would have had a Triple Crown winner."

The films of the race seem to confirm Servis's interpretation. When Elliott went to the lead on the backstretch, he wasn't pushing and shoving aggressively; Smarty Jones wanted to go, and Elliott had little choice but to let him.

If anybody's failing cost Smarty Jones the Triple Crown, it was not Elliott and Servis, but the beloved horse himself. Smarty Jones had accomplished his triumphs in the Derby and Preakness by overcoming his pedigree; he is the son of a miler, and his female family is dominated by sprinters and milers.

This is true, but its not a complete explanation. After all, Smarty had successfully controlled his speed in the prior two classic races. This time he didn't.

"I knew when we turned on the backside that we were in a little bit of trouble," Servis said. "He just wasn't settling as nice as he had in the previous two races. He was dragging Stew out of the saddle. I had a bad feeling. You can't do that and get a mile and a half."

My view is that Smarty was undone by the tactics of his primary challengers, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten. Jockeys Solis and Bailey rode their mounts with one objective: to beat Smarty Jones. To do that, they had to keep him under pressure in the middle half of the race. The result: a suicidal middle half mile. The first half was run in a modest 48.65 seconds, the second half in 46.59 seconds. Of the racing writers I reviewed this morning, only MSNBC's Mike Brunker states the obvious.

Smarty's reputation as one of the strongest Triple Crown candidates in years worked against him, as both Rock Hard Ten and Eddington pressured him in the early stages of the 1 1/2-mile marathon, the longest of the three Triple Crown races.

"We thought the only way we could beat Smarty Jones was to bring the race at him," said Mark Hennig, trainer of Eddington, who finished fourth, a dozen lengths behind the winner.

The tactic worked, though not for those who employed it. Smarty Jones withstood challenges from Eddington and Rock Hard Ten after he stuck his nose in front halfway up the backstretch, then he put them away turning for home.

But there was no rest to be had in the last quarter mile to glory.

Birdstone got the perfect trip, sitting behind the premature duel that Elliot and Servis wanted no part of. But short of Elliot standing up on Smarty, nothing could be done about it. Elliot did not start working on Smarty until the final 3/8 of a mile, when he was slowing down and needed it. Smarty got the penultimate quarter mile in 25 seconds, and the final quarter in 27.2.

The tactics of Rock Hard Ten and Eddington showed that Smarty Jones can be beaten at 1 1/2 miles. But not without ruining their own chances in the process - Smarty left them 11 lengths in his wake. He won the race within the race, but not the one that counted. Racetrackers have a term for this: the "race fell apart," and Birdstone picked up the pieces. Birdstone is a good horse and deserves credit for capitalizing on the situation. But Smarty Jones will be back, and I'm looking forward to it.

Update: Bill Finley at ESPN has an excellent column, "What else could Elliot have done?" The column gives a proper scolding to writers who have criticized Elliot's ride. He bluntly states: "There were some jockeys out there, Jerry Bailey among them, who seemed to be riding to beat Smarty Jones and not to win the Belmont." TV interviews with top trainers at Hollywood Park this afternoon also echoed this view, with several marvelling at the game performance turned in by Smarty Jones, given the challenges he faced.