Saturday, June 5, 2004

A race for the ages


136th Belmont Stakes

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo]
Smarty Jones, winner of this year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness, sticks out his tongue as groom Mario Arrigas washes him during a light rain.


AFP/Getty Images/STAN HONDA

Each horse in the Belmont Stakes today will carry a minimum of 126 pounds. What's immeasurable, in Smarty Jones' case, is the weight of a $17 billion industry.

He will tote the hopes not only of a sporting public that has fallen for him, but those of a sport aching for a breakout star.

This horse, with a story perhaps more enchanting than any in thoroughbred racing's history, will try today before an expected record crowd at Belmont Park to become just the 12th Triple Crown winner in history - the first since Affirmed in 1978.

"Maybe to non-racing people it's a happening," Patrice Wolfson, who owned Affirmed with her husband, said of today's drama. "To racing people, it's the Second Coming. And we really need it."

Rivaled a half-century ago perhaps only by baseball and boxing in the sporting consciousness, horse racing has slipped in popularity. Yet a recent revival, sparked in part by the Seabiscuit tale and the long-shot nature of Funny Cide's 2003 Triple Crown bid, made the timing ideal for Smarty's success.

Having won all eight of his races, including a record 111/2-length victory in the Preakness, Smarty can join Seattle Slew as the only horses to complete the Triple Crown undefeated. A second $5 million bonus for winning today would make him the richest racehorse in history.

The increasing comparisons to Secretariat, revered as racing's greatest champion, hint at Smarty's potential impact.

"Smarty Jones could do for horse racing what Michael Jordan did for the NBA," Louisville-based trainer Elliott Walden said.

In five weeks, the horse has become a phenomenon.

He became the first horse in 21 years to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated and the first ever to land that spot in ESPN the Magazine.

Nearly 5,000 fans showed up at his home track, Philadelphia Park, for a gallop before the Preakness. More than 8,500 showed up for another gallop a week after that race. As of last weekend, that track had sold 10,000 Smarty hats, and the horse's owners signed a licensing deal that is bringing Smarty gear nationwide to department stores such as Macy's.

A Yahoo search found about 711,000 results for Smarty Jones. There were nearly 1,300 Smarty items up for bid on eBay this week.

"It's amazing how much this horse has touched so many people's lives," trainer John Servis said.

The hook is a humble background rare for racing royalty.

He's a Pennsylvania-bred who nearly died when he slammed his head on an iron bar. Servis is based at small-time Philadephia Park, as is jockey Stewart Elliott, a 39-year-old journeyman who has had to overcome alcoholism and a criminal record. The owners, car salesman Roy Chapman and wife Patricia, nearly left the business when distraught over the death of their former trainer, Bob Camac, but held onto Smarty.

"There's so much Seabiscuit in this story," said Kentucky Derby handicapper Mike Battaglia of Edgewood, Ky. "If someone had written this story right after the Seabiscuit book, they would have blown it up and said it was too implausible."

In a 2003 ESPN poll that asked people if they were interested in a sport "at least a little bit," horse racing finished in 12th place with 35.6 percent. It had increased from 31.2 percent in 1999, but racing still ranked behind extreme sports, boxing and fishing - though ahead of the NHL.

Decades ago, racing didn't follow other sports into widespread exposure through TV, fearful that the medium would dim on-track attendance. That decision backfired. More recently, the sport has been swallowed by other forms of gambling.

Racing's reply was to take the market to the customer through off-track wagering. Total pari-mutuel wagering in North America has increased annually since 1994, to more than $15 billion last year. Off-track wagering now accounts for 87.5 percent of the money gambled in the United States on thoroughbred racing.

The downside for the industry is that bettors who play the horses closer to home don't pay for concessions or parking at the track. Also, off-track betting forces the host track to share commissions with additional partners. Purses declined 1.9 percent in 2003, the second consecutive decrease.

"Racing needs a horse like this," said Steve Cauthen, the former Affirmed jockey from Verona, Ky. "Nothing helps the industry more than a star."

The goodwill generated by Seabiscuit's "return" and the Funny Cide story probably paved the way for this spring, when TV ratings for the Derby were up 16 percent over last year. Ratings for the Preakness were up 22 percent and were the highest for that race since 1990. These Triple Crown races have done better ratings than the 2003 NBA Finals.

A record 112,668 were at Pimlico Race Course for the Preakness, and Belmont Park expects a record crowd of 120,000 today. Nationwide, wagering totals could soar today because of casual fans who will buy $2 win tickets and save them for posterity.

Since Affirmed's Triple Crown sweep, nine horses have won the Derby and Preakness but lost the Belmont. A concern is that Smarty ending that drought would hasten his retirement.

The commercial market has gotten so lucrative that horses are all but whisked from the winner's circle to the breeding shed. Secretariat never raced as a 4-year-old. The only one of the last five Derby winners to still be racing the following spring was Funny Cide, largely because as a gelding he had no value off the racetrack.

The leading reason to believe Smarty would continue racing is so Roy Chapman, who at 77 is stricken with emphysema, can enjoy this run. Servis said the Chapmans are leaning toward letting the colt run at least the rest of this year.

"If Smarty goes on and can stay in the public's eye, then it becomes a big boon for racing," Battaglia said.

Industry insiders are careful not to overhype a racing renaissance. Smarty can't cure every ill in 21/2 minutes today.

"Racing is hard to get into," said Penny Chenery, who owned Secretariat. "Once the glamour races are over, the everyday (events) at the track are kind of obscure.

"Today's sports fans want instant results. They don't want to read the past performance (charts) and spend time on it. ... Our growth will be incremental. Racing fans are grown one at a time."

It's never too late to sprout. Teri Piecara, 51, of Pitman, N.J., has never been to a horse race, but she said Smarty's story "makes your heart sing." She drove an hour to Philly two weeks ago for Smarty's public gallop.

"I had a very nice experience at Philadelphia Park," she said. "Where (racing) hadn't been on my radar at all, now maybe on a Saturday night I might say, 'Let's go to the track and put down some $2 bets.' It'd be fun."

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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